Thirteen weeks, five days and five hours after being postponed, the Premier League is back today. For a sport-starved world, it will be akin to a Premier League World Cup — a festival of football that will see 92 games being played in little more than a month and the crowning of a new champion (Liverpool have something of a headstart).
For obvious reasons, it won’t entirely be the beautiful game we know and love. The Premier League’s return will not be greeted by the roar of packed stadiums, as fans remain at home to protect themselves from a coronavirus pandemic that still rages in the UK, a country among the worst affected in the world.
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But to make up for the closed stands, British broadcasters will join international contemporaries in airing every single kick of what’s left of the 2019/20 season — an unprecedented loosening of rights that matches the truly unusual times. What’s more, the BBC will show games for the first time in its history, joining other live rights holders Sky, BT Sport and Amazon.
Deadline has spoken to Comcast-owned Sky, BT Sport and the BBC about their plans for the restart, and they talk about the challenge in the same breath as staging major sporting events of the past. Never has so much planning gone into broadcasting a midweek match between Aston Villa and Sheffield United, the curtain-raiser for the season finale that will kick-off on Sky at 6PM local time this evening.
The broadcasters have spent months talking to the Premier League about getting the competition back on screen, while traditional rivalries have been set aside as the TV executives have collaborated during virtual meetings to draw up coronavirus safety protocols. Premier League rules include dividing stadiums into traffic light zones, matchday health checks and packed lunches, while the broadcasters have their own guidelines designed to promote remote working.
In broad terms, the networks hope that the viewing experience will not be jarringly different to what went before. There will be a mixture of studio and pitch-side presentation, commentators and reporters will be allowed inside the grounds, fake fan noises will be made available to those who want them, and high-tech thrills will remain in place, such as BT Sport continuing to show games in 4K and HDR. Behind the scenes, however, there are big changes to the way football is being produced.
The COVID-19 crisis has expedited a remote broadcasting revolution that could have taken years. Sky, which is showing 64 games live, will use its studios on the outskirts of west London as the main hub for its output, with footage being pumped through internet cables from the stadiums and cut at the headquarters. The company had already invested in this technology for its English Football League coverage, says Sky Sports’ executive director of content Steve Smith, so the experience will help when it comes to the Premier League.
“Lot’s of the operations that previously would have been at the ground will be back at Sky and the production team, that is responsible for the editorial and the creative elements, will also be based at Sky… What the viewer sees is unaffected, but where it’s done from is changed,” Smith explains.
It’s a similar story over at BT Sport, which works with sports producer Sunset+Vine to make its Premier League coverage. Chief operating officer Jamie Hindhaugh tells Deadline that BT Sport will have less than a third of its normal team based at stadiums on matchday — which basically means camera operators and a smattering of technical staff will be the only ones on site.
Instead, BT Sport, home to 20 matches, will use a remote operating center in High Wycombe for match coverage, while the studio presentation will be driven out of its headquarters in Stratford, east London. Many people will be able to work from home. “What we’ve done is fast-tracked our remote production roadmap to come back in this way. And this is the way we will work moving forward,” Hindhaugh says.
BT Sport has learned a great deal from its Bundesliga coverage, while Sky has also been talking to Sky Deutschland about its experiences broadcasting the German football league, which returned last month. BT will replicate elements of its Bundesliga output, such as having pundits comment on the game via video link from their homes while others are in the Stratford studio. “It’s important to reflect the situation everyone finds themselves in. The fact that fans can’t go to the game, we should be empathetic with the situation,” Hindhaugh adds.
Sky has the opening fixtures on Wednesday — Aston Villa vs Sheffield United and Manchester City vs Arsenal — both of which will be presented from the grounds, with build-up reflecting on the coronavirus challenges and the Black Lives Matter movement. Smith says that the majority of its games, however, will be anchored from Sky’s studio.
The BBC and BT get going on Saturday, with the former broadcasting a bottom of the table clash between Bournemouth and Crystal Palace. The BBC will be using outside broadcasting facilities at the ground, but will experiment with remote working over the course of the four fixtures it shows. “This has changed the way we work for the foreseeable future, and if not indefinitely. We’ve got a number of teams working from home… and the technology has made that possible after a little nervousness initially,” said BBC Sport’s head of production, Debbie Dubois.
BBC presenters Kelly Somers and Alex Scott will be at the Vitality Stadium for the Bournemouth match, with the main presentation being anchored from a Dock10 studio facility in Media City, Greater Manchester. Gary Lineker, the BBC’s highest-paid presenter, will have to apply his own makeup using written tutorials in preparation for going live, with social distancing rules dictating that he and other presenters can’t come into contact with a makeup artist. They will also have their temperature checked before entering the studios, and sit two meters apart from each other as they reflect on the action. “Everybody understands that this is where we are,” Dubois adds.
Inside the grounds, broadcasters will be subject to the Premier League’s strict safety protocols. Grounds have designated green, amber and red zones (see below), which dictate access levels for those involved in staging, televising, and competing in games. Red zones include dressing rooms, tunnels and technical areas and will be restricted to players, coaching staff and officials. Pitch-side steady camera operators will also be allowed in the red zone, given their proximity to the on-field action, and they will be subject to the same strict COVID-19 testing as the players. Sky’s Smith refers to it as “the bubble.”
Broadcasters and the media will mainly be restricted to amber zones, and will have to submit to temperature checks and health questionnaires when entering stadiums. This amber zone grants access to pitch-side broadcasting, as long as it is done behind advertising hoardings. It also allows for pre- and post-match interviews to take place with players and coaching staff. The BBC’s Dubois says boom mics will be essential for social distancing and presenters will receive training on how to clean mics between interviews.
She lists some other details from the protocols: “There’s no food on-site, everyone has to take their own packed lunch. Everybody needs to travel separately to the ground. The Premier League has instructed that face coverings need to be worn at all times, but if you’re a commentator or reporter you’re going to need to remove and return them once you’ve done your piece.” Hindhaugh is confident it won’t have a big impact on-screen. “I don’t think it’ll be that much different from previously. It’s just planning very carefully around access and making sure that those rules are observed,” he adds.
According to reports, broadcasters lobbied the Premier League for increased access to teams as part of their plans. More radical ideas like rigging cameras in dressing rooms have been knocked back, but BT Sport COO Hindhaugh says broadcasters are working with the Premier League to capture audio from the pre-match coin toss, while there will also be more footage from inside the tunnel before kick-off. Players may also be directed to head for a dedicated “celebration camera” when they score a goal, although they must maintain a distance from teammates.
One of the most discernable differences for viewers will be the lack of a crowd. To compensate for this, the broadcasters have worked with gaming giant EA Sports to recreate the noise of supporters for the audience back home. These will be tailored to each club, and can be mixed by a sound engineer alongside live coverage to ensure crowd noises marry with action on the pitch. In short, when a team scores, celebration sounds will be replicated. For Sky, the technology is full-circle given it has worked with EA over a number of years to provide crowd noises for the FIFA games. Smith says it’s all about striking a creative balance and ensuring the sounds make an impact on-screen, rather than detracting from the football.
BT Sport trialed the technology during its Bundesliga coverage last weekend, and the response was mixed. BT Sport presenter Jake Humphrey has tweeted about the “pelters” he has received from purists over fake crowd noises, but he is an advocate of the technology. Lineker is also a fan. “The manufactured crowd noise is definitely better than the eerie silence that comes with behind closed doors football. Helps the commentators too, I reckon. Not like the real thing, of course, but better,” he tweeted over the weekend.
BT Sport and Sky will give viewers a choice over whether they watch with synthetic crowd noises or without. Both broadcasters are also testing technology that will enable audiences at home to watch along with each other using video call technology. Sky is calling its service Fanzone, while BT Sport is making a beta version of its technology available earlier than it originally anticipated. It’s all about trying to replicate the shared viewing experience.
Hindhaugh is confident that viewers will respond positively to the coverage. He cites the big audiences for BT’s Bundesliga games (1.4M watched the Borussia Dortmund vs Schalke restart fixture last month) as an indication of how hungry people are for football. For a man who headed up production on the BBC’s London 2012 Olympics coverage, he ranks the Bundesliga return as being “right up there” with his career highs, and says everything learned from the experience will be channeled into the Premier League.
“I’ve been working at Sky Sports for coming up 26 years now. It’s clearly an extraordinary period of time,” adds Smith, praising his staff for the way they have embraced the challenge “both technically and creatively.” Dubois says the Premier League’s return is “about as challenging as it comes” but will inject some normality back into the lives of her workforce. “That will, for a lot of people, feel quite reassuring.”
As games get back underway today, it’s a sentiment a lot of football fans will recognize.