Features - News Feature

JUNE 1, 1991

Broadcasting Formula 1


Who is the most important person at a Grand Prix? Is it Bernie Ecclestone the paymaster? Is it a star in a car? Or the man with the chequebook at Marlboro? No. Some would say that it is the man from the EBU. The what?

Who is the most important person at a Grand Prix? Is it Bernie Ecclestone the paymaster? Is it a star in a car? Or the man with the chequebook at Marlboro?

No. Some would say that it is the man from the EBU. The what?

The European Broadcasting Union is a consortium of the the broadcasters of Europe. It is based in Geneva in Switzerland and among its members are the British Broadcasting Corporation, Tele France 1, France 2, TV Espagna, RAI, ZDF and so on. The EBU was founded after the Second World War and there was a similar organisation in the Eastern Bloc, which has now been absorbed into the EBU. The EBU's job is to coordinate programmes throughout Europe and the world for its members.

Its major activity is something called the Eurovision news exchange in which six times a day the EBU members exchange news stories via phone lines and satellites. If a bomb goes off in London the BBC supplies its pictures to the other EBU members.

The EBU's other important job is coordinating a television service for major events around the world, both sporting and political. It has people in Sarajevo with a satellite dish, beaming pictures out to the world.

And at every Grand Prix the EBU has a man on the spot to make sure that everyone gets live pictures of the action.

Television is essential to motor racing. It pays for the sport and it attracts the big sponsors. Excluding World Cup Football and the Olympic Games, Grand Prix racing gets more live coverage worldwide than any other sport. Televising Grands Prix is no easy task but that does not concern the EBU, that is down to the host broadcaster in each country. The host broadcaster supplies the 30-odd cameras around the track, the miles of wiring, a crew of maybe 200 technicians and the outside broadcast units, which are gathered together at each GP circuit in what is known as the television compound. From the outside it looks like a lorry park, but there are wires going out in every direction.

Somewhere in the middle of all this are usually two mobile master control rooms, each equipped with 30 screens and each being watched by a director, who hits buttons and cuts the race as it happens. One of the teams creates what is known as the World Feed, the other the Domestic Feed.

It is at this point that the EBU gets involved. Jason Beaton, one of the EBU's producers, explains: "The World Feed is what we deal with. It leaves the central control room via cable and can go two different ways. Some broadcasters like to add things to create their own individual programmes, there are pit reports or maybe shots of the commentators cut into the world feed by production facilities independent of the central control room. Some stations just take the world feed and add their own audio.

"All the signals end up on their way by cable to what we called "an uplink". Basically it's a big satellite dish, often on the back of a lorry. This i pointed at a satellite and feeds the video signals from the TV vans by radio to a satellite overhead. In case you are wondering, the satellites are geo-stationary, which means they stay overhead, revolving with the world.

"Some satellites have up to 25 transponders (antennae) so they can handle that many feeds at the same time.

"The best way to explain is to give you an example. Take the Canadian Grand Prix. What happens to the signal? We up-link to a domestic satellite (DOMSAT) over Canada. This bounces the signal down to the EBU offices in New York, where we have a permanent transponder which beams the signal from New York to our office in Brussels on a more powerful international satellite. Our office in Brussels then routes the signal all through Europe, either by domestic satellite or permanent phone lines.

"If you take the BBC as an example, the signal is downlinked to White City where it is demodulated into video again and is then put out to your televison screens.

"If you follow the Fuji TV signal, it is uplinked to DOMSAT, diverted to an international up-linking/down-linking centre in Brewster, western Canada and then uplinked again from there to an international "bird" somewhere over the Pacific and finally downlinked to Fuji TV in Tokyo.

"Actually if you know which satellites are being used and you have the facility to downlink them all, you could watch I don't know how many versions of the same race at the same time: Fuji TV, the BBC TV, RAI and even the world feed with just natural sound, which some broadcasters use, havimg commentators working from their home studios.

"The most impressive thing about all this up-linking and down-linking is that it is all done instantaneously. It's like a great tree which spreads out all over the globe.

"Our job is to make sure everyone has all the facilities they have requested and to coordinate the signals. We also have to troubleshoot problems. What happens is that you have people all along what we call the signal path. All along the way there are people involved. Anyone of them can pull the wrong plug or throw the wrong switch. We have to start from the beginning and see where it has gone wrong. You have to find the one guy who has mucked it up."

Getting the links set up is usually done in the minutes leading up to the start of the race. Has he ever missed the start?

"I don't think that has happened before, certainly not to me, but we have come very close.

"If something does go wrong,' he adds, 'literally millions of people are not going to see the race. It is quite a responsibility..."