AUGUST 1, 1999
BY JOE SAWARD
For the last three years Bernie Ecclestone's digital broadcast centre - known in the Formula 1 paddock as "Bakersville" after Eddie Baker, the former Brabham mechanic who runs it for Ecclestone - has been producing groundbreaking digital TV coverage of Grands Prix racing. To date the service is not available in Britain although Ecclestone says he is negotiating with British Sky Broadcasting and OnDigital. The digital service is available in many other countries around the world but it has not been as big a success as was hoped.
Bakersville produces programming for six different TV channels - one of them being the results, which are constantly being updated by the timing computers. The other five provide the story of the race, the activity in the pits, the highlights of the session and the in-car cameras. The viewers can switch between the different channels as they wish and the commentators can tell the viewers that exciting things that are happening on the other channels. It provides a remarkable insight into a Grand Prix.
People were worried that pay-per-view television would replace the free-over-air service but Ecclestone has always said that this will never be the case and that pay-per-view was designed for real fans of racing to be able to see more. There is sound commercial logic in this argument as going completely pay-per-view would upset the sponsors who fund F1 because of its extraordinarily large viewing figures. Bernie's digital TV service was to be the icing on the cake - a large chunk of extra income for the sport - and, of course, for Mr E himself.
It is Bernie who has paid for the digital broadcast centre and nowadays he admits that he was probably a little too early in making his investment. The world was not really ready for the service.
The adventure began back in July 1996 at Hockenheim when Germany's Kirch Group launched the first digital TV channel - DF1. The company had developed a digital decoder box, capable of handling large numbers of television programme and other services via satellite or cable. Kirch agreed to pay Ecclestone a vast sum of money for the supply of F1 coverage. France's Canal Plus and Italy's Telepiu followed suit but none of the services have been very successful. Kirch has been restructuring and merging DF1 with another of his digital TV operations Premiere while the rest of the industry has been wheeling and dealing, trying to create workable alliances. Bernie reckons that the TV companies are losing money on the deal.
"They haven't sold the product properly," he says. "No-one has really explained what we are trying to do. Once the public understands they will buy it. You get more images with a much better quality picture and there are co commercials, so you get 20% more for your money."
Bernie admits that his team have been learning as they have gone along and have the capability of doing a lot more with the technology which exists now. He has also tried a new approach to commentary, with a discussion group involving people such as Gerhard Berger and Flavio Briatore and a couple of journalists rather than the traditional "screaming heads" behind the microphones
"Personally I think we should reduce it from six channels to three," Bernie says. "We are looking at that now and we are trying to get the broadcasters to think about how they package it."
To date Bakersville has been a well-protected fortress to which access was restricted. This was because Bernie did not want rival sports and TV companies to see how the facility worked. The technology has always been right out there on the edge of development - and it continues to be so.
Inside Bakersville the atmosphere is padded, muffled and air-conditioned. It is always cool. It has to be because of the delicate machinery which is running inside. Everything can be taken apart - even the air-conditioning is made from cloth - and transported from race to race. It is a huge task and there are around 200 Formula One Communications staff to get everything done. Outside in F1 paddock the FOC men and women are known as "the luvvies and the riggers". The "luvvies" are the TV production teams and engineers which run the facility and create the programming; the "riggers" are the men who move it from place to place and ensure that it is always in action when it needs to be. This is an extraordinary operation as Bakersville consists of around 200 tons of equipment, which is loaded onto 18 trucks or two Boeing 747 cargo Jumbo jets. The kit includes three cranes, which are necessary to get the carefully-designed equipment into the right places in the 1200 sq m silver-grey tent.
When you get inside it is pretty dark. The roof does not let in any light. The monitors emit a soft hum. There are a variety of different rooms in which the different programmes are produced, there are sounding mixing units, color balance control sections and so on. The entire place is self-sufficient. It has it own power supply and its own satellite dishes. On the one side is the main FOC area and on the other are the office of the individual TV companies which use the feed. each of these areas has its own sound booth, editing suite, conference room, production area and commentary booth. In addition there are the FOC offices, an area which provides services for race control and even a cafeteria. The unit has changed shape inside a couple of times as lessons have been learned and new technologies have arrived and now, it seems, that the digital TV service is on the verge of a new phase, which will take the new technology and provide an even better service.
For the last couple of years the facility has been able to monitor the exact position of each car on the track at any time. This was very useful for the TV crews because it enabled them to have the cameras better coordinated and to have the captioning much more reliable. This was achieved by the use of an fibre optic cable "ring" of the circuit, linking together sensors which are placed every 100m or so.
Knowing exactly where the cars are on the circuit at any given moment - and how fast they are travelling - is very useful for a TV director and it means that each cameraman can be given a variety of different jobs.
"People have always treated cameramen as being sort of sub-human without the ability to think," explains Baker, "but we gave them more responsibility and more information. They now produce not one but two different feeds and they are informed at all times - on their screens which cars are being followed and where they are on the track. They know exactly what they have to do. In the case of accidents we have different scenarios planned out so we can follow everything and we also have a real innovation in that the cameramen have a live-to-air button. They spend all their time at the same corner and they know the lines the cars are taking so when they see an accident happening - or about to happen - they can cut straight into the programme so that we do not miss anything. This means that we can avoid having to replay everything all the time - which saves time."
The live-to-air button is used five or six times in each race and provides a much more immediate feeling of what is happening. This is added too by an unusual philosophy of camera positioning. In the old days the host broadcaster - the local company which provides the free-over-air programme which is beamed all over the world - would decide on how many cameras were needed. These were usually located so that the company did not have to bring too many cameras. Inevitably this meant that the camera positions were located high about the track - so as to cover more area - and looking down straights or covering corners with long panning shots. This was the cheapest way but it did not produce good television. From the very start FOC has always adopted a policy of using unusual camera angles and more cameras than was really necessary.
"We try to put the cameras in places where you can see the cars passing through the shot," explains Baker, "to make sure that the viewer gets an impression of the speed. So we have cameras on straights and things like that."
FOC also uses many more in-car cameras than are available to the free-over-air broadcasters. This has caused a lot of complaint that pay-per-view is being favored in order to force fans to pay for their coverage but Ecclestone refuses to accept that argument.
"We spend £12m a year on onboard cameras," says Bernie, "and none of the free-over-air TV companies contribute anything to that. If they want more in-car footage they should pay for it. They want to have it for free."
Bakersville is an amazing place - even for the technologically-challenged viewer - but Baker reckons that we are still only at the very beginning of the possible developments.
"Things are always changing," he says "and the possibilities are endless."
Baker is not keen to say although he does admit that the TV facility provides vital services for Race Control. As the computers know exactly where the cars are on the track at any given time and can monitor the speeds the cars are going, they can also pick up incidents. They can be programmed to indicate if a driver has gone through an accident scene faster than he should have done. The computers can pinpoint corner-cutting moves or accidents. If everything goes to plan at the start of next year Bakersville will be connected to lights in the cockpit of each F1 car with red, yellow and blue lights. These will warn the drivers that the race has been stopped, if there is an incident ahead or if they must get out of the way of a faster car. Drivers will no longer be able to claim that they did not seem the flags being waved at them. There are already computer programmes which calculate how dangerous the track is at any point when there is a rain storm. This gives the Race Director an indication of whether or not the Safety Car should be deployed.
In the longer-term there are all kinds of possibilities, including automatic camera work if the computer detects a car going off the expected line or sees an overtaking manouver happening. They can probably even produce verbal messages for the TV directors and the Race Director. You can call it virtual commentary if you like.
"Coulthard is off at Turn Five," the computer will say...
Already there are several Race Control rooms which do not have a view of the track. It is no longer essential. All the information needed can be supplied electronically. In fact, nowadays, with the increasing amount of fibre optic cable around the world and the massive capability of this to transmit information there is an argument that there is no need for Bakersville as all the data could be transported back and forth to permanent facilities in London just as easily as it can be to the big grey tent.
In theory Race Control could be in London as well...
Such things would save millions in transportation costs.
There is no reason why other sports should not one day benefit from the technology - at a price. One can easily imagine an air show with five or six different channels, tennis tournaments from which several games could be broadcast simultaneously and so on. The possibilities are remarkable but at the moment Ecclestone is keeping that side of the business under tight control.
"The Winter Olympics last year asked us to take the facility to Japan but we decided not to do it," he admits. "We are still learning."