INTERVIEW: From the start, BT Sport has used tech to differentiate itself. COO Jamie Hindhaugh talks about its strategy and the first VR Champions League Final
Manchester City’s 2-0 victory away at Brighton on Saturday marked the start of BT Sport’s fifth season as an official broadcaster of the Premier League.
BT shocked the media world when it won the rights to 38 live matches a season – including several first picks – at a total cost of £738 million and for the first time Sky had a genuine competitor in the sports TV market.
The rationale was simple. By offering free Premier League matches to its broadband customers, BT hoped to stop losing them to Sky, which was offering free broadband. And BT’s growing customer base would appear to suggest the tactic has worked.
BT Sport origins
But taking on a broadcaster as powerful as Sky is no easy task. BT has since strenghtend its content offering with live rugby, MotoGP and UEFA Champions League football, has invested significantly in talent and ensured it had the right distribution networks in place.
Having a nationwide broadband network was an advantage and BT did everything possible to ensure people could watch – most notably online and via a mobile application.
You can read more about the first three years of BT Sport from a technology perspective here, but what about the future?
From the start, BT has seen technology as a way of differentiating itself from Sky and its efforts in 4K broadcasting, superior quality sound and virtual reality broadcasts are evidence of this.
Chief Operating Officer Jamie Hindhaugh joined BT Sport just after helping deliver the critically acclaimed broadcast of the 2012 London Olympics for the BBC and immediately adopted being at the ‘heart of sport’ as his team’s the mantra.
4K and Dolby Atmos
“The first thing was 4K,” he tells Silicon. “Everyone else was talking about it, but the fact we had BT TV as an IP TV platform allowed us to look at it in a very different way. We had to build our own truck and the first year we did 4K we did 70 live events.
“That wasn’t good enough for me because we had to have separate workflows, separate trucks and separate commentators [to deliver 4K] so you weren’t really bringing people together collectively to the heart of sport and you were fragmenting your audience.”
“So last year we worked really hard, and pioneered actually, going down to single truck production. We can now capture in 4K and convert it back in the truck into a standard HD feed. This means we have done 350 live 4K events and are the biggest 4K producers in the world of live sport.
“That was just the start. Better picture quality obviously makes you feel closer to the action but sound quality for me is really important. It’s the forgotten medium and since [Dolby] 5.1 was launched ten years ago, not much has happened. So we’ve been working with Dolby for about two years and we’ve managed to pioneer bringing Dolby Atmos into our 4K signals.
“Having the best sound and the best pictures – it really does bring [sport] into your home.”
Champions League Final VR
Sky has since followed suit, offering 4K broadcasts with Dolby Atmos on its Sky Q platform, and still has more Premier League matches than BT.
But BT Sport has now broadcast 41 live events in Dolby Atmos, including the 2017 Champions League Final, which was a showcase for several technologies.
The match was the first ever with 26 camera HDR, and also used Dolby Vision to enhance the picture quality. But it was the use of VR that captured most attention. Anyone could use the BT Sport App or YouTube to watch the final either in 360 degree video or in VR with a Google Cardboard headset.
This was achieved by the deployment of 12 Nokia Ozo cameras around the pitch in Cardiff, with a separate workflow taking place in the truck with different commentaries.
“We’ve been working with VR for [11 months],” says Hindhaugh. “I personally think a lot of broadcasters are quite lazy with it. They put one camera and then have a one minute experience and walk away.
“We are able to narrate a broadcast feed where you could watch the whole game and not lose anything but at any time spin around and watch anything you want.”