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Behind The Scenes At BT Sport: How Tech & Social Media Are Changing Live Football

Steve McCaskill is editor of TechWeekEurope and ChannelBiz. He joined as a reporter in 2011 and covers all areas of IT, with a particular interest in telecommunications, mobile and networking, along with sports technology.

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IN-DEPTH: Silicon sees how social media and technology is changing how sport is broadcast and helping BT Sport differentiate itself

BT’s move into sports broadcasting has been well covered on the pages of Silicon over the past few years. 

We’ve spoken about the impact it has had on the UK telecommunications market, heard about the IT challenges of launching a brand- new TV channel from scratch, and only in August, we spoke to BT Sport’s COO Jamie Hindhaugh about how technology differentiates it from the competition. 

So it was with intrigue that we went behind the scenes for a Premier League broadcast to see how its technological innovations are being used in practice, including on a brand new show called Premier League Tonight . 

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Behind the scenes 

We turned up at Stamford Bridge for Chelsea v Manchester City, one of the biggest games of the season and a high profile showcase for BT.  

Located in the car park of the stadium are several outside broadcast (OB) trucks that have been set up during the week preceding the fixture and are essential to the operation.

While technological advances mean many roles can be performed remotely, the match directors, producers and other key staff will sit in the trucks to bring the match to millions of homes. 

Each truck is kitted out with metres upon metres of cabling, numerous servers and, of course, audio and video equipment (There are some printers too, but let’s not focus on those).

In the PL Tonight truck, the Premier League’s international feed shows all of the 15:00 fixtures, where producer Stuart Hutchison (who claims to have perfected the art of celebrating without making a sound when his beloved Watford score) and his team identify the main stories of the day. 

When the time comes for the Chelsea v Man City game, all of the action takes place in another OB truck where various camera angles and audio feeds are condensed into a single broadcast that will make its way to millions of homes and pubs around the country. 

But technology isn’t just essential for the broadcast, it’s also changing the content of the production. 

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Premier League Tonight 

For the first three years of its existence, BT Sport mostly televised matches at 12:30 on a Saturday. But for its second term as an official broadcaster of the Premier League, it won the rights to the 17:30 kick off. 

It was this that encouraged BT to create PL Tonight, an hour long programme that follows the live match. But since only Sky and the BBC are able to show highlights before midnight, BT had to adopt to take a different approach for its effort. 

Instead of showing the day’s action, it focuses on the expertise of its pundits, social media trends, press conferences from the managers, and contributions from fans to create something unique. As Hindhaugh told Silicon earlier this year, BT Sport’s ambition is to be at the ‘heart of sport’ and offer something different to the incumbents. BT Sport (5)

“Having the 17:30 game gives us an editorial difference,” said Stephen Cook, head of football at BT Sport, who describes the show as ‘Match of the Day without the goals’. “We can be the last word on a Saturday.” 

BT Sport isn’t just judging the success of the show just on ratings, but on how the content is shared. Fans and pundits are encouraged to have strong opinions which could go viral on social media and build the reputation of BT Sport. 

BT has pursued a multimedia strategy from the start, with its content offered via an online stream and via mobile applications. More recently it has moved to social media where several programmes are shown on Twitter and to YouTube. Near-live clips are also shared on European nights.

Hutchison, who used to produce BBC’s Final Score programme, and his team spend the afternoon on social media, picking up on the topics that are likely to get fans talking, and watching the earlier games. 

“There’s so much football output out there so it’s much easier to find new angles to talk about and handle a topic differently,” he told Silicon. “I welcome it and it makes the job easier.” 

SeenIT role 

But it’s the panel of fans that is the most innovative aspect of the show. BT has enlisted the support of 20 ‘superfans’ (one from each club) to create short video clips about their team on matchdays, and to ask questions for the panel during the show. 

This only possible through the use of SeenIT, which won a BT infinity Lab competition last year. Entrants were tasked with finding a way to improve the sports broadcasting experience and SeenIT fended off six other challengers with its vision.

SeenIT’s app allows contributors to rapidly record and upload videos to the cloud so they can be downloaded and then encoded into BT’s broadcast equipment almost instantly. Here, Hutchison’s team review the submissions and pick the most entertaining, insightful or relevant clips. 

‘Fan-based’ segments haven’t always been well received by viewers however. The BBC’s Football League Show was criticised for its efforts when it launched in 2009 but Hutchison believes the fact that user generated content is the main focus of the show makes PL Tonight truly unique. 

“With BT Sport we’ve tried to marry these new trends,” he said. “Some other [broadcasters] have done this but only on a token level.” 

Jake Humphrey & Frank Lampard speak to Silicon on Page 2…