Vision statement - Eurovision’s pioneering 2016

2016 offered a packed summer of sport to television viewers around the world and behind much of it has been Eurovision, the media solution partner and operational arm of the European Broadcasting Union. SportsPro spoke with Stefan Kuerten, director of Eurovision services and sports rights, and Graham Warren, director of network, about the challenges the corporation has faced this year and the technologies it is pioneering.

Vision statement - Eurovision’s pioneering 2016

Though sport never really stops for respite, the past few months have been particularly breathless. 2016’s so-called ‘summer of sport’ has treated fans to a non-stop smorgasbord of top-quality competition, with the usual annual rotation of three of tennis’ four Grand Slams joined by the quadrennial behemoths of the Uefa European Championship and, of course, the Olympic and Paralympic Games, among other high-profile events. At times, just following the sporting action over the summer has felt exhausting.

Spare a thought, then, for international media distribution partner Eurovision, whose employees were not just watching the summer of sport but working tirelessly around the clock to bring it to viewers across the world. 

Eurovision has been distributing sports and news transmissions to broadcasters on behalf of rights holders since its inception in 1954, when it was created as a division of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), the world’s largest association of national broadcasters. “In all of its 62-year existence,” says Stefan Kuerten, director of Eurovision services and sports rights at Eurovision, “2016 must rank among one of the most interesting and most challenging. I also think it has been very successful.”

The year has been tough not only for the sheer volume of sports Eurovision has been involved with – “all the major sports events you can think of,” Kuerten says – but because it has marked the launch of several new technologies that the Geneva-based Corporation believes can make a huge difference to the way sports content is transmitted. In a space that is changing more rapidly than ever, Eurovision is making sure it remains at the forefront of broadcasting innovation.

At Euro 2016, Eurovision acted as a distribution partner for the event, meaning that it was responsible for providing a contribution network from all of the stadiums in France to the International Broadcast Centre (IBC) in Paris. As Graham Warren, director of network at Eurovision, says: “We provided all of the equipment needed, including the terminal equipment for the system. We also distributed the majority of the transmissions out to the rest of the world for both the international so-called ‘multi’ signal – distributed to all rights holders – as well as dedicated services on request for some broadcasters.”

The task of distributing a live broadcast feed from ten venues, in nine different cities, is always going to be tough but, as Warren points out, Euro 2016 saw Eurovision dealing in “high-quality uncompressed services, in high definition using the full bandwidth over IP” for the first time. Developments such as these are increasing the value and quality of service offered by Eurovision, and have ongoing technological benefits. But every new roll-out means a new learning curve for Kuerten, Warren and their team.

This has been the case for one of Eurovision’s latest developments, NEX. As Warren points out, “NEX allows us to provide a solution to carry the video feed as well as a high volume of additional data over the broadcast network – satellite and fibre – to broadcasters.” The service was developed at the end of last year and was used during the entire Uefa Champions League soccer season.

 “Nowadays, there is often a lot of extra video content and data available at the venue, in addition to what is transmitted to international rights holders,” says Warren. This additional material is not yet being fully capitalised by broadcasters but will be of value to those who are hungry for more content in the future, especially with the rise of object-based production. Thanks to NEX, broadcast-quality video clips, following particular players or action and additional data for second-screen applications, can be transmitted with the main video over satellite or fibre.

“One of the most important aspects for us is also to ensure high security of the system and access control so that broadcasters receive only what they have rights for and are allowed to use,” says Warren. “This is why we built a digital rights management [DRM] system into the service.”

The implementation of NEX at Euro 2016 was carried out in partnership with digital media specialist Deltatre. The footage from 17 of the team training camps was distributed via the IBC to those international broadcasters who had taken the NEX service.

“It’s very customisable,” says Warren. “We did it for Uefa, so yes, we can provide additional value-added services for any sport in the future. Furthermore, we are constantly enhancing our NEX service with new features and functionalities so broadcasters can rest assured that they receive the best services from us.”

The customisability and flexibility of its platforms is important to Eurovision, as an international distributor working with a range of different federations, events and rights holders, all of whom have varying requirements.

The collaboration between Uefa, Deltatre and Eurovision was highly commended at the recent International Broadcasting Conference in Amsterdam where it was shortlisted for an Innovation Award for Content Delivery.

Following its work in France at the European Championship, Eurovision was then involved in the international distribution of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rio, in collaboration with Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS), the broadcast arm of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

 As well as its operations across sport, Eurovision is also in the business of current affairs coverage – “with one of the biggest news events of 2016, the US election, still to come,” notes Kuerten. The demands of broadcasting and distributing news content are significantly different from sport, but as Warren points out, “it turns out that some of the solutions developed for news coverage have had interesting applications in the world of sports as well”.

“We’re mainly thought of as a high-end provider,” says Warren, “but we also have a considerable portfolio of news, entertainment and smaller sport events. To meet the demand of these markets we knew that we needed a more flexible and cost effective platform, which led to the development of Eurovision Flex.”

Launched earlier this year, Eurovision Flex combines satellite, Eurovision’s own FiNE fibre network and public internet into one self-managed environment. It has already been successfully used across many events and will be used for the November showdown between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Flex is a perfect solution for smaller-scale sports events, where it is either not necessary or not viable to send a fully-fledged broadcast team.

“The most popular application of Flex is for news gathering of planned or unplanned events,” says Warren. “You have your producer on the ground who acts as a jack of all trades. They have their camera and Flex backpack which transmits the footage over 3G or 4G or Wi-Fi, or whatever is available.”

While the idea is practicable in theory, wireless internet networks in the real world don’t necessarily provide the stable network that might be required.

 “This is why we’ve launched a hybrid network that provides an extra quality of service by going through our own dedicated fibre network, Eurovision FiNE,” says Warren. “In doing so, we only leave the first and/or last mile on the internet while the rest is carried over a robust network. This allows us to connect large distances, transmit higher data rates and higher bitrates for better quality pictures, thereby helping us to guarantee the quality of the video. This makes Flex suitable not just for news but also for entertainment, culture and sports events. We see a big opportunity in this area.”

Kuerten concurs, adding that the flexibility of the platform makes it easier for Flex to be integrated into other solutions, “so we can serve both the top and lower ends of the market”.

“Overall,” he adds, “we aim to provide services, integrated or standalone, which can serve all platforms – a necessity for the future.”

Another change, thanks in large part to the ever-increasing availability and reliability of networks like Eurovision FiNE, is remote production, where the heavy lifting of covering a sports event – that is, the live production stage – can be done remotely from the venue.

“Remote production is becoming a real trend in the industry,” says Warren. “The contribution service we provided for Euro 2016 from the venues to the IBC – pure, uncompressed IP – proved we are able to achieve very low latency. This makes us a perfect partner for remote production where time delay is critical.”

Kuerten returns to Eurovision’s desire to be a holistic provider which gives broadcasters solutions across a range of platforms – “be it new media solutions, be it streaming, or be it whatever kind of new services are required”.

“We are the perfect partner to deliver one-stop shop solutions from the beginning to the end of the value chain,” he says. “Our services range from rights acquisition, through host broadcasting and venue services, to worldwide distribution of content in multiple formats and post-production. We also offer a range of other customisable services for broadcasters and content owners and will continue to grow our services to complement the industry.”