Sending Europe to the watching world: behind the scenes at Uefa Euro 2016

Uefa Euro 2016 is the biggest ever edition of European soccer’s showpiece and has involved the biggest broadcast operation in the tournament’s history.

Sending Europe to the watching world: behind the scenes at Uefa Euro 2016

Uefa Euro 2016 is the biggest ever edition of European soccer’s showpiece and has involved the biggest broadcast operation in the tournament’s history. SportsPro went behind the scenes ahead of the second round match between Italy and Spain to find out more.

By Eoin Connolly

Soccer fans are conditioned to think of any game in the context of two teams, and two tribes: an encounter, a head-to-head, a confrontation. In the setting of an international tournament, however, that membrane dissolves from the edges and there is a sense of the world beyond.

It is the last Monday in Paris in June and two of European soccer’s grandees, Spain and Italy, are preparing to share one of the sport’s grandest stages, the Stade de France. This is the highest-profile fixture in the round of 16 at Uefa Euro 2016, which has swollen to include 24 nations for the first time. Fans of some of those countries are in attendance – some here wear the colours of Belgium, who Italy edged into second place in the group stage; there are England shirts, Germany shirts, shirts worn by fans of the absent Dutch. Club teams from as near as Paris and as far as Buenos Aires are represented. This is a European event, but a global occasion.

And people around the planet are watching. By the time the Henri Delaunay Trophy is presented at this venue on 10th July, 51 matches will have been shown to hundreds of millions of viewers in almost every territory. 

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The International Broadcast Centre (IBC) is in the giant Paris Expo centre at Porte de Versailles, close to the city’s other Euro 2016 venue, the Parc des Princes, in western Paris. The complex is in the midst of a major redevelopment programme; builders toil in front of signs reading ‘Porte de Versailles se metamorphose’ – Porte de Versailles is metamorphosing. For now, Uefa’s biggest ever broadcast project is nestled in the centre of the cocoon.

Spread out over 17,000 square metres, the IBC itself was the result of six weeks’ construction and is the temporary home of 40 international broadcasters and 650 staff, 200 of them working for Uefa. Throughout the tournament, it runs for 24 hours a day, every day; as if to emphasise the unusual hours kept by staff here, there are laundry and postal services alongside the on-site café and restaurant.  

The IBC is at the hub of a network that spans much of France. Telecoms giant Orange, a global partner of Euro 2016, has run 70,000 kilometres of fibre-optic cabling from each of the ten matchday venues. All of it runs here, though in theory, venues can also be connected independently to allow feeds to run between them for greater flexibility.

Bernie Ross, the head of TV production at Uefa, is here in the hours before the evening’s matches, guiding a team of journalists invited by EVS on a tour of the facility. He explains the job of Uefa during the 30 days of competition in straightforward terms. It is “to make sure, as my wife says, that for those 30 days, all you see is the bloody football”.

The master control room at Uefa's IBC was expanded for Euro 2016 to cope with the additional games

Ross describes the IBC as “Uefa’s method of distributing its content”. Uefa runs its broadcast operation internally, which allows it to share TV footage for other purposes, such as security, more easily. Much of what viewers see on its main feeds is directed from the master control room, or MCR, beefed up from Euro 2008 and Euro 2012 to meet the needs of an expanded tournament, with up to four games a day having taken place during the 24-nation group stage.

During matches, the team in the MCR will keep an eye on footage coming in from any active venues, with quality control team also in situ in an adjacent room. There is also a running feed from the fan zone in Paris. In the wake of last year’s terrorist atrocities in the French capital, local authorities requested a broadcast presence in the fan zone to emphasise the continued openness of the city. Four broadcasters have established their studio base there during the tournament; footage from static cameras runs back to the IBC.

There are also 40 external news gathering (ENG) broadcast teams active during the tournament, following teams and shooting B-roll in the host cities and beyond. Their work also makes its way back to the IBC – with so much video and audio to make sense of, the reliability and adaptability of the network is paramount.   

According to Ross, Uefa works to deliver on its broadcast objectives by bringing “the best in the business together”, even if it sometimes has to force them. The physical manifestation of that practice is the central equipment room, a distinctly unglamorous yet utterly pivotal collection of racks, wires and servers. Orange’s fibre-optic cabling runs into a cage at one end of the room, where the signal is converted from digital to electrical. The other side of the cage is the broadcast engineers’ domain.

“Fibre people like to think it solves everything,” says Ross. “It doesn’t. Intelligent fibre does, and that intelligence comes from the little boxes at either end.”

Those boxes are provided by the likes of Lawo, a company specialising in audio processing, but perhaps the most important as far as Uefa’s TV partners are concerned are supplied by EVS. These are the servers which allow thousands of hours of footage to be ‘ingested’, stored, and processed for broadcast. The servers can hold up to 7,000 hours of footage – 3,000 to 4,000 will be produced during Euro 2016. Those broadcasters on site will plug in physically, but remote access is also available. 

A mass of messy wires runs between each rack of servers and processing units but what emerges on the other side are carefully sorted ‘packets’ of cabling – colour-coded to denote video, audio, data and so on – for the use of the on-site broadcasters. Those in place at the IBC have different needs from the facilities. For some, like the BBC, it is a matter of capacity: regular broadcast assets for jobs like editing are still in use for other programming during the tournament, so more are needed to cope with the additional work.

Behind the central equipment room, a plywood warren of additional facilities. There is a TV production office that broadcasters can use for highlights editing, another room for multi-angle clip production. Uefa chief of communications and media Pedro Pinto has a base here, with his team next door.  There are support centres for third party operators like EVS. The walls of the ‘log cabin’, so dubbed by its inhabitants, is staffed by operatives logging feeds as they come in. There is evidence here of some misspent downtime: homemade posters of British TV personality Bruce Forsyth and former Ireland international Terry Phelan, hewn together by escalated in-jokery.

In 2020, when the Euro is taken to host cities in 13 different countries, there will be a rethink of the IBC concept. Some would describe this as virtualisation of the IBC but Uefa head of digital solutions Olivier Gaches, formerly of EVS, prefers the terms “decentralisation”. He points out that some form of physical infrastructure will always be in place. As it stands, there is already a measure of decentralisation in effect at Euro 2016.

"It’s a question of having a centralised IBC or a more decentralised IBC using the cloud and other services."

Uefa coverage of the tournament is accessible to broadcasters through its LiveX suite of products. At the top of this is the premium LiveX IBC, which allows the use of a full range of content services for live broadcast and clip production for those channels working from the IBC. Then there is LiveX Remote Additional Programming, which pushes out content created at the IBC for use by broadcasters who do not wish to create their own. LiveX Radio, as the name suggests, provides audio-only content, while LiveX Internet & Mobile provides content and infrastructure for mobile and internet apps, allowing the end user to watch live games from different angles, access replays, and so on.  

The product that hints at how a decentralised IBC would work is LiveX Remote Full Edition, which offers the same services as LiveX IBC but without requiring a physical presence on site. Qatar’s BeIN Sports, Hungary’s MTVA, Italy’s Rai and Romania’s Dolce Sport are all running this system for Euro 2016, working from servers aping the IBC set-up at remote locations.

“It’s a question of having a centralised IBC,” Gaches explains, “or a more decentralised IBC using the cloud and other services.”

Devolution of the broadcast operation is not the only change in the offing for 2020. Uefa is experimenting with Dolby Atmos sound production and with virtual reality. Hours of footage are being shot in VR at Euro 2016 – Gaches points out a camera at the opening ceremony alongside singer Zara Lasson – and Uefa will work out how best to editorialise them at the tournament’s end. The emphasis is on creating interactive pieces that engage viewers far longer than a three-minute clip. 

Eight matches at Euro 2016, including the opening game, semi-finals and final, are being shot in 4K, in a dual production alongside regular HD coverage. More games will be planned for the next tournament, with consumer take-up likely to rise. 4K and HD require different set-ups, with eight cameras in place for the former compared to 42 for the latter. There are a few reasons for this. For one thing, the HD production is the main event, with every conceivable angle covered. For another, the early broadcast ‘grammar’ emerging for 4K is of wide static shots, which suit the technology better than fast sweeps and make the best use of the fact that 4K images can be cropped by a quarter and retain HD quality – a popular feature with broadcasters.

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Back at the Stade de France, there is a remote 4K test, directed from the IBC and necessitating the use of four Sony cameras, but otherwise the day is very much geared to a 2016 broadcast.

There are two broadcast compounds on site at France’s national stadium. The external one is here for use by host broadcaster Euromedia, consisting of two main OB – or outside broadcast – trucks, and another smaller unit running super slo-mo replays. Of the trucks, one runs the main broadcast beamed into homes around the world. The other is for ‘fantertainment’ – the images that will appear on the big screens within the Stade de France, the inoffensive pre-game interviews and kiss-cams to the running in-game footage, and cutaways to those supporters who somehow always manage, as if through spiritual possession and often in spite of apparent despair, to wave frantically at their own beaming simulacra.

As Tom Hawkins, the TV match operations information specialist for Uefa, explains, feeds will be carried from here to the IBC through fibre cabling, but there is also a satellite back-up in case the network fails. The Uefa feed produced here is carried by the various official fan parks across the country and, increasingly, by international broadcasters who have packed up and left for home as the teams they cover have been knocked out. Uefa has made further provisions for out-of-country production at Euro 2016, including a ‘virtual stadium’ effect – stitching together four live HD images from within the matchday venue to give the impression of an in-ground presence.

The round of 16 is the point at which TV companies have begun to improvise. From this point on, results dictate whether – and where – each side will play. England’s unexpected second-place finish in the group stage, Hawkins explains, has sent UK broadcasters south to Nice for a game with Iceland, rather than to the capital for a derby against Northern Ireland at the Parc des Princes. The Nordic islanders will later take the matter of England’s participation out of any future scheduling.

Similar set-ups have been in place across all ten venues for the competition, with compounds staying put as production teams move between them.  As the knock-out stage draws on, of course, more will close – four venues complete their service at the round of 16 stage, another five by the end of the semi-finals. The Stade de France, of course, will be the last one left for the final on 10th July.

Within the bowels of the stadium is the other on-site compound. The facilities in here, including another clutch of EVS servers, can be used by broadcasters almost as a “mini-IBC” where required. Deltatre, an Italian broadcast technology company, is also here implementing services such as player-tracking and graphics overlay.

As Hawkins talks to the group of touring journalists – who are trailing visitors from the local organising committee for soccer’s next great jamboree, the 2018 Fifa World Cup in Russia – cameras outside the ground pick up the arrival of 2012 champions Spain. It is a reminder of what everyone is here to see; all this technology is in service of the stories these men will create.

Pre-match there are ten positions at the Stade de France for the use of pitchside presenters and reporters. A liaison officer leads a team of six in coordinating the allocation of these plots to TV teams from around the world – either on a unilateral basis, where camera crew and talent can set up for the duration of a matchday, or a ‘multi by uni’ basis, where areas are available for ten-minute slots. Hawkins explains that while the physical set-up may not differ from a Uefa Champions League match, there may be increased demand for a shared space.

Up in the stands, commentary teams share the media tribune with the written press. Modular desk layouts have been designed specifically for the tournament, with uniform specifications across the ten competition venues. At the Stade de France, there are 85 desks in place today, with room for three commentators at each desk, but that number will rise to 130 for the final. There are restrictions in place to keep the environment as clear and coherent as possible; no external broadcast cameras are allowed here, with visuals delivered to TV companies by ‘comm cams’ affixed to each desk.

On each table top is a small, flat screen, about the size of a tablet computer. Soon it will show the stadium feed; for now, it counts down the seconds until that feed goes live.

After that, after the anthems, after the freewheeling flag dance of the opening ceremony, there will come the one part of the exercise beyond almost everyone’s control: the game. 

The focus of all that attention.