Inside the F1 digital television center
MARCH 2, 2001
BY JOE SAWARD
Formula 1 digital television is about to enter a new phase - and that could bring millions more dollars tumbling into the business.
For the last four and a half years Bernie Ecclestone and his Formula One Communications crew have been building up the world's most advanced digital broadcasting facility in the world. It has cost $50m to date but in now about to start paying back on Ecclestone's investment.
The facility produces a special multi-channel service for digital TV subscribers. Ecclestone is gambling that competition for sports viewers around the world is now such that a lot of sports are considering ways in which they can improve their appeal and multi-channel broadcasting is the answer.
"The possibilities are endless," says Eddie Baker, the man in charge of the FOC mobile digital broadcasting facility. This is known as "Bakersville" and at every Grand Prix you will find a vast silver grey tent in which the magic is being weaved by Bernie's 200 "luvvies" and "riggers".
The "luvvies" produce the shows, the "riggers" assemble, disassemble and transport the 200 tons of equipment which is needed. It has all been carefully designed in modules which fit onto the trucks and into the Boeing 747s which are used as transport during the year. Each module has a specific location and once it is in place it is just a question of wiring it all together. How that is done is a miracle.
The FOC byword is attention to detail and you can spot this when you see the impressive line-up of 20-odd identical silver-grey trucks lined up at every race. The number plates are in sequence and in the trucks are in the correct order. Silver-grey is Bernie Ecclestone's favorite color and he is a man who likes to that everything is in perfect order. Professor Freud would have called the numberplate trick "anal-retentive" but it is a tribute to Ecclestone's perfectionism - and the power of Velcro... it is much quicker to switch the numberplates around than it is to try to park the trucks in the right order.
Ecclestone is not saying what Bakersville has cost him to date but estimates begin at $100m. The equipment is estimated to have cost as much as $70m by itself and to that must be added the transportation costs, satellite time and research and development. Bernie says that the in-car cameras alone cost him $18m a year.
The cost has been largely offset thanks to deals Ecclestone negotiated back in 1996 and 1997 with Germany's Leo Kirch and France's Canal Plus. The facility is paid for. Ecclestone says that he is not losing money but reckons that the digital broadcasters are.
"They haven't sold the product properly," he says. "No-one has really explained what we are trying to do. Once the public understands it they will buy it. You get more images with a much better quality picture and there are no commercials."
It is rather more than that.
Bakersville produces six different TV shows at the same time. These are all available to digital subscribers in the countries where the service is sold. The viewer can switch between the channels and see what they wish to see and not have to put up with the traditional "international feed" produced by the host broadcaster of the event.
You also get some extraordinary footage because Bakersville aims to produce the best possible show rather than to produce a good show at the lowest possible cost. The host broadcasters tend to have to work to tight budgets and so they use fewer cameras. 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 tends to hide the speed of the cars. From the very beginning Bakersville has aimed for dramatic television.
"We try to put the cameras in places where you can see the cars passing through the shot," explains Eddie Baker, "to make sure that the viewer gets an impression of the speed. We have cameras on straights and things like that."
In addition there is a vast amount of in-car footage. Host broadcasters complain that they do not get enough in-car footage to spice up their shows. Ecclestone says that they would if they were willing to pay extra for it.
One of the six channels concentrates entirely on in-car footage. Another shows the timing as it is happening. There are two channels following the on-track action, one which concentrates on incidents and highlights and one which watches everything that is going on in the pits and the paddock. There are different commentators for different channels and they can tell the viewers to switch to where the action is taking place. In recent months Bernie has tried other commentary ideas with group discussions between well-known F1 characters and journalists. The first group was six.
"Everyone spent the whole time talking over each other," Ecclestone says. "We will have to try it with less people."
Baker has also experimented with a live-to-air button which enables individual cameramen to cut into the program when they seen a incident occurring.
But where Bakersville is becoming increasingly innovative is in its software development. The computers already know where every car is at every moment - thanks to sensors around the track which are linked to a fibre optic cable "ring". The computers are programmed to react if, for example, a car goes through a yellow flag area quicker than it has previously done. They can identify when a car is going off the track almost before it happens. The next step is for the computers to switch the coverage to automatic cameras at the scene of the incident. This would also work with overtaking maneuvers. These systems - which include voice emulation software which tells people what is happening rather than indicating things are happening with flashing lights on screens. Some of these systems are already being used by Race Control officials. Next season the cockpits of the F1 cars will be fitted with warning lights controlled by Bakersville which will indicate danger ahead, a faster car behind or a red flag situation. The drivers will no longer have to rely on flag marshals.
There is already software which calculates at what point the track is too dangerous in the wet. This enables the Race Director to send out the Safety Car at the right moment.
The growth of fibre optic cable networks around the world could soon mean that there will be no need for Bakersville at the races. There could be a permanent facility in London to edit the incoming signals and send them out again - instantly. That would save Ecclestone millions in transportation costs but, more importantly, could open the gates to customer business. One can easily imagine the six-channel system being used at Wimbledon or the British Open golf - to show six matches simultaneously. With fibre-optic cables, however, there is no reason why the six channels could not feature events taking place simultaneously at different locations: cricket matches, basketball, baseball, football games and rugby internationals tend to clash. The system could give minority events more coverage during the Olympics Games. The possibilities really are endless.
..and because Ecclestone is the only one with the technology and experience he stands to gain the most.