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The history of sportscasting: An Australian perspective

This is contributed piece from Bruce Hume, Broadcast Director at Switch Media It covers his thoughts and experience in the delivery and consumption of sports broadcasting, often known as sportscasting, from an Australian perspective.

Up until only a few years ago the only way to enjoy sports was to go to the game or catch the live broadcast on the telly or radio. Many of us will remember days of analogue broadcast recorded on VHS which allowed us to catch up or even relive moments. If you were lucky enough to have a VHS, it might have had a timer recording. Setting these things up was like using a rudimentary digital alarm clock from Casio. There certainly was no EPG to schedule the recording.

A decade or so later came the Personal Video Recorder (PVR), a pretty revolutionary device. With the ability to leverage the TV Guide, users could simply set up recordings via the remote control. Recording video to relatively small video sizes and USB thumb drive support, we saw users share recording games with mates and possibly online – somewhat illegally. Starting to see the demand for online viewing rights, holders would often make short highlight packages as part of online coverage. These took the form of short, very low-res highlight packages available as QuickTime or alike. 

In a huge moment for Australian TV we saw Foxtel launch a 20-channel subscription service in 1995, and over the next few years the advancement and development in broadcasting was pretty powerful. FoxSports and other sports channels, continued to increase viewing options with a considerable drive for better viewer experiences.  

From 2000 onwards

Over the noughties things really began to advance and we saw internet video start to take shape. Smart web integrated PVRs allowed user remote access to video content away from the home. The first technology was TV2Me, followed closely by the more accessible Slingbox. Slingbox was developed by a couple of big sports fans who wanted a way to catch up on their team games while travelling outside of the local broadcast region. These guys made a killing out of out “placeshifting” as they got around the rights issues.

Importantly TV Networks sat up and listened and “TV Everywhere” was born. This securely delivered live streaming content and gave viewers a new platform to watch live sport online. TV Everywhere gained considerable traction in the USA during 2009 when ESPN360 contracted with ISPs to allow their customers access to online ESPN content, delivering a new way to make the most valuable of their content available via their online platforms. the-epsn360-web-ui

The EPSN360 Web UI

Here in Australia there were a couple of key services around the same time; ABC launched iView in 2008, and Austar’s companion subscription service brought AUSTAR Anywhere. While not delivering live sports, these services were major catalysts for change in user behaviour around the consumption of TV online.

So it was all about DVRs, hard drives, media players and catch up viewing. Advancements in technology also brought better broadband capability, Wifi, social media, smartphones and tablet devices… what a decade! 

Sportscasting since 2012

Things only got more impressive over the next few years. In 2012 came the tipping point, with the ongoing advancement of technology and improved connectivity on all levels, in the shape of the London Olympics. With the Summer Olympics as the highest watched and highest grossing of any sports event, big budgets meant amazing projects. NBC Olympics Live Extra in the US, and Foxtel Olympics Apps in Australia, were examples that changed the game.

Try to ignore the gratuitous advertising in this video, but this clearly shows what NBC delivered:

In Foxtel’s most successful sports broadcast ever, they provided eight live dedicated channels streamed online to computers, tablets and smart phones 24/7. This was another real game changer in sports broadcasting.

3-tv

Here is FOXTEL’s TVC of the app:

It’s worth noting Network Ten followed suit with a similar strategy with their broadcast of the Sochi Winter Olympics and Glasgow Commonwealth Games. They delivered with eight linear live streams, two of which were the FTA broadcast plus an additional six digital only channels. A live stream mosaic allowed viewers to view and select from multiple live streams on their Android and iOS devices. This was a huge success for the network and further paved the way for more advanced ways to view sports, such as the recent F1 season where they delivered five additional live stream broadcasts online, including views from the pit stop, driver cam and more. 

One of the most interesting and disruptive deals recently was BT TV in the UK’s play around 2013. They signed 38 games per season of English Premier League, offered as part of the IPTV bundle with broadband and saw on-boarding of around 500,000 new customers in the first quarter of the deal being offered. A truly remarkable game changing feat in the UK market.

Over the past few years we have seen digital rights being sold separately from traditional broadcast rights, for example Telstra picking up AFL and NRL online rights. This is giving viewers more options on how to consume their sports.

With these huge deals, broadcasters must find smarter, more engaging and, more advanced ways to attract audiences, by delivering a viewing experience like never before.

User selectable multiple camera angle views is touted as a way broadcasters can allow audiences to replay the action in ways previously only available in the OB truck. We saw this technology powerfully executed with the World Cup App in 2014 when FIFA delivered this to audiences globally via their app service. FIFA offered this to local broadcasters as a re-skinnable white-label offering. This type of solution exposes huge amounts of footage captured from cameras around the pitch. This could include regular sideline cameras, Spidercam and body-worn RefCam etc. What we saw in the World Cup was a purely VOD offering, created using the EVS C-Cast platform. This same offering is used by Channel 9 for State Of Origin and alike here in Australia.

During the Summer of Tennis in 2015 Switch Media delivered a live solution which allowed viewers to change their viewing position. The solution relied on a mosaic displaying all the views which were routed in the various inputs or cells in the encoders. This allowed the digital team to focus on key elements going on in the games; for instance “Boris Cam” which was live during a number of finals during some controversial umpiring. This enabled the viewer to see Boris Becker’s reactions on the phone or tablet while watching the main broadcast on the TV.

In addition to live streaming, catch up viewing and multiple camera views, editorial data and social fan engagement are more powerful tools now driving viewer engagement. Video sharing has also become the number one content type in Twitter and Facebook. This sharing increases awareness and hence broadcast views. Twitter’s acquisition of Snappy TV in June 2014 resulted in the ability for broadcasters to tweet up to 20 seconds of video content in very near real time.

Live streaming, multiple camera angles, live stats, social engagement – in the past few years there have been such significant advancements in technology allowing broadcasters to provide more accessible and exciting coverage to their audience than ever before, and that’s just the beginning.

The future of sportscasting

So, what next? Over the next few years we will see more synchronisation and interactivity between primary and companion screen engagement. A mate of mine, an avid sports fan, often has a setup like this – watching the game live via FTA broadcast or subscription TV service delivered OTT on his 60+inch screen, he will bet on his mobile and play some Super Coach on the laptop. As a Gen X he is au fait with technology and shows much interest as we discuss the possibilities delivered by future technology and connectivity.

In May this year, Totolotek in Poland launched the first Hybrid broadcast broadband TV (HbbTV) App, giving users the ability to bet via the colour button/control pad of their remote while watching TV. Of course, this application of connected TV technology is watched with a great deal of interest due to the hugely profitable nature of this industry. Although a few years old, Poland’s HbbTV standard is still capable of this kind of application. The recent release of spec for HbbTV 2.0 which we should see implemented in 2016 will enable a more powerful experience by use of HTML5. The ability for users to hand off content between TVs and second screens is an exciting option when it comes to reviewing a key moment in a game.

An example of this technology would be a game being watched live on the primary screen, a key moment might take place but the match plays on. Today we see this handled in the traditional way, with a picture in picture replay in the primary cell and the live continuing in the secondary cell. The HbbTV 2.0 alternative may be a viewer pushing the catch up replay event to their phone, tablet or laptop where they could change the camera angle to suit their own liking.

Handing this level of control back to the viewer allowing them to choose from a wide variety of content was illustrated this year during Australian coverage of the Summer of Tennis. During the Australian Open two channels were broadcast on the free-to-air as well as up to 16 additional courts shown with alternate camera views. The success of this shows viewers’ aptitude for choosing their own content and not being locked to matches on the broadcaster’s primary feed. The opening up of more content and allowing users to view their own perspective of the match brings the users closer to content acquisition.

Speaking of drawing the user closer to content acquisition point, as NAB and IBC have shown over the past few years we have seen some pretty interesting technology, allowing users to choose their own view of the action entirely. This is delivered by many (12 or more) cameras stitched together at the venue, then streamed to the cloud. Users fire up the app, which changes the view via accelerometer and motion sensors in iPad / Oculus Rift or simply view controls in the player. The user experiences HD16:9 view of the area of the action they are interested in rather than an ultra-wide angle super high definition view which the 12 cameras are stitching together. This technology may be adopted at lower tier and school sports, plus possibly as custom secondary views at live events allowing people to zoom in and out of players and the crowd at their own discretion.

So it looks to me like the future of sportscasting will be all about empowering viewers by providing them with a vast selection of options allowing them complete flexibility and control over what and how they watch their sports. Exciting times ahead!

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