Behind the Screens: America's Cup Television

Denis Harvey is the Executive Producer for America’s Cup television responsible for the television coverage of the America’s cup. He toured me through the ACTV studios- 16 shipping containers crammed into a dark warehouse on Pier 23. These containers are packed with state of the art screens, servers, camera equipment, control rooms, studios, and offices. Ropes of wire criss-cross between them. Each one is carefully locked, guarding the over $20,000,000 worth of equipment they contain. Feeds from 23 different cameras (mounted in three different helicopters, on chase boats, from land, and in the AC72s themselves) relay the images to Pier 45 where a telecommunications container sporting a 135 ft radio tower bounces everything back to the main hub at Pier 23. Every camera is wireless, a first for any sporting event coverage. This travelling studio has been erected at each of the world series events, practicing for San Francisco and the final races.
After unlocking and peeking in the various containers, he leads me to a main office container to talk about his role and the goal of ACTV.

In the container with Denis Harvey

How did you get involved in the America’s Cup?
I’ve been in television for all my working career. I first did an America’s Cup in 1992 in San Diego. I was working for the television New Zealand network. We were the rights holder so I went up to San Diego and looked after all their production. For the ‘92 cup and the ‘95 cup. When New Zealand won the cup in ‘95 and everyone came back to New Zealand, I looked after all the host broadcasts. So the world feed for 2000 and 2003. I then left television New Zealand not long after that and then when Oracle won the cup Russell Coutts approached me to ask if I would like to get involved again. So I have been working on the project since then.

How did you know Russell?
Through the previous cups. I’ve produced the sailing at the past three Olympics so I’ve got a bit of a track record in covering sailing. I have been doing, between the 2010 cup and this one, there was a series of Louis Vuitton trophy regattas in the old mono-hulls, which Oracle and everybody were involved in. My company was contracted to do all the television production for that. I have my own company back in New Zealand. I do a whole range of stuff, some sports, some reality shows, a variety of stuff.

Can you compare doing television coverage for the cup in ‘92 and now?
There are a number of differences. I mean A, the technology has changed so technically it is now much easier to get good video off the boats and good audio off the boats. We can now do AC liveline and you just couldn’t technically have done that in ‘92. So basically the coverage has gotten better as technology has allowed you to handle it. Whereas, in ‘92 we pioneered the use of virtual eye technology and that was a first. It was only at that point that you could do real-time 3D animation that had never been done before. That was done on a box with a computer the size of a small fridge that was worth half a million dollars that somebody lent us. Whereas now you can do virtual eye on a laptop. So basically the advances have happened as technology has enabled us.
The big difference is also that these boats are completely different in terms of having to deal with the speed of them, the sheer technical complexity of the boat has made it a challenge for us. But, on the positive side, because we were involved very early on, right from the design phase of these boats, television has been integrated into the whole project. They have been working with the teams and designers to integrate all of the television. Whereas in the past we came along as a bit of an afterthought. When Larry Ellison and Russell Coutts determined getting the television right was a key part of the success we have been integrated into the whole event right from the very beginning.

What’s your opinion on tailoring the cup for T.V.?
Well I think sailing is particularly challenging to cover anywhere. Its also particularly challenging to get an audience to understand it. So if you want the sport to go forward, you want it to be attractive to sponsors to go on television, then you have got to get an audience. To get an audience, be it a web environment or a television broadcast environment, you have got to have a television product that is equal to if not better than any other sport that is out there. Because that is what are competing with. You are competing with Formula 1, with Tour de France, and thats what your audience measures you against. So you know, you can’t sit down here below them. If you want your credibility to be seen as a high-end really attractive sports proposition than you’ve got to get your television production right.

Why do this now?
Well I think Larry Ellison and Russell understood the value of it. I mean it has always been on television. There has been live coverage of the America’s Cup since 1992. But they have kind of worked in parallel. Sometimes together, sometimes in conflict. What we have got here is that we are joined, so that the development of the world series and the development with the technology and the liveline team have created has meant for example that they could adjust the race duration while the race was on so we could finish the broadcast so it could finish in the allotted time. One of the challenges in the television world for a broadcaster is that in the past, races didn’t start on time, they over ran, and if you are a broadcast you have the next program lined up. You know you can’t just chop and change your schedule. So we thought one of the keys was to make it a reliable product that broadcasters can trust. If you can build more trust for the broadcasters it adds more value for them. So on a long-term plan, they build confidence in the sport that it is a great television product that their returns and what they are prepared to pay for the rights fees grows exponentially.
So it is a critical component, not the only component, but it is a very critical component to making the sport viable. Because if you can make it reliable on television then sponsors will trust it and sponsors will invest. They will invest with teams, it may not be in the event, but they will invest in a team because they know they are gonna get the exposure. So it is sort of integral to the success of the entire event.

Are the controversies making it difficult to build trust here?
Well that is challenging. In the past the issue has really been will the boats sail for lack of wind or is the wind too strong. So the wind parameters were set and the reason for going to these boats was that they had a much broader wind range.
So we’ve started races in Venice and in Cascais in three or four knots of breeze. In the past you wouldn’t have had a race, in the old mono-hulls. And if the race was light, it would just go on and on and on until you had run off the end of your broadcast, whereas what we have been able to do with the race committee, based on the data we have is that we need that race finished by 3:55 because all of the broadcasters around the world are off-air at four. So they were able to, on the fly, adjust the marks to shorten up the race course to enable that to happen.
So we have been able to, almost every regatta, every day. The races have started when we said they were gonna start or in a couple of minutes if there is a minor issue and we have always finished by the end of the broadcast. So if you are a broadcaster buying it you are gonna say, this is alright, this works. Whereas in past cups you could sit for two hours waiting for a race to start. Which is hopeless.

What happens after this Cup?
All we want is for it to be a successful event that is commercially sustainable. And television is just one element of that. The viability of the cup, whoever wins or loses it, depends on teams being able to finance their campaigns and for whoever is the holder of the cup, to be able to finance the event. So television is but one part of that jigsaw puzzle. But we are quite a critical one. Say you are a team and you are trying to raise, say $100,000,0000 and you go to a sponsor and ask for $20,000,000 the first thing they are going to ask is what is our return? What is the media exposure going to be? So we are kind of at the front end of that in terms of people’s decisions in making investments. Particularly if you are a sponsor wanting to know what your return is. For a sponsor it is about exposure.
The challenge, irrespective of who wins the cup, is how do you build an ongoing sustainable financial model. That is one of the unique things about the cup as a sporting event is of course you can’t do a five year business plan like most other sports can because you are entirely dependent on who wins each time. Whoever wins it determines what the next cup is, where it is going to be held, what kind of boats are sailing, will there be a world series, won’t there be a world series, you know what will the build-up regattas be or will there be any build up regattas? So you can’t plan ahead more than each cup cycle and that is one of the challenges of the cup?

Is that something you would like to see change?
It would certainly make it easier. But the cup has been this way for 162 years, you know that is one of its attractions. If you win it, you control it. It isn’t owned by anybody. The America’s Cup doesn’t have a governing body like a FIFA or an ISAF running it.

So whoever wins next won’t inherit these 16 containers?

No. They might decide we are going to do it completely differently. Might have a completely different view. You always like to think when you do a production like this that you have done enough things well that the next cup holder would like to take some of those elements forward but there is no guarantees. All of the crew that I’ve got contracted, and even my cup finishes not long after the cup.
What happens after that, nobody knows. Whoever holds the cup will make those decisions. I mean you can think about it. If Oracle wins then you know, they have some views about what they may do going forward. If team New Zealand win or Artemis or Luna Rossa wins they’ll have ideas about what they want to do going forward. But it is there decision. Their choice to make. Now a number of us working on this project have worked on multiple cups. You like to think the knowledge that we have learned from this cup carry forward to the next, you don’t keep reinventing the wheel.

What is the best place to air America’s Cup on?
Well, in an ideal world, a national free-to-air broadcaster delivers you your biggest audience. But you know, it is a challenge to get airtime in a national network anywhere in the world. Depends on where you fall. If you fall on daytime, depending on timezone, daytime it is a bit easier to schedule. If its prime time evening, very difficult. So you have got to balance out television rights. How much you get on the rights fee versus how big is the audience. So there is a balancing act. So sometimes you decide you are better to take a lower rights fee and have a bigger audience. There is a bit of a juggle in that process. Europe is about 8 hours ahead of us. So a one o'clock race start here, depending on where you are in Europe is maybe eight or nine at night which is prime time. So, in that kind of environment, maybe being on a sports network may be a better option. In New Zealand, a one o’clock start will be eight o’clock in the morning. In terms of volume of audience its only 4.5 million people, but in terms of high-ratings it traditionally delivers a high-audience rating. One of the highest audience ratings in New Zealand television history was when they won the cup in 1985 and TVOne, the channel that broadcast it, had a 98% audience share.
Italy and France are strong markets for us, traditionally in sailing the interest those countries is good. The U.K. is generally quite good.

So how is your audience share for this cup so far?
Well we are generating more media than ever before and at a level that has never been generated before. Particularly at the world series. The fact that we are live on YouTube, this is the first time that youtube has really gotten involved in the live broadcast of the sport. Suddenly you can reach a global audience straightaway. The dynamics of the way people watch sports are starting to change. People are more and more watching sport on streaming platforms. The internet is becoming a delivery mechanism into the home. Now most TVs are internet enabled. So the delivery mechanism becomes the internet. So you are starting to bypass the traditional broadcast networks. That is a challenge for them.

Why the focus on national broadcasts on a television network then?
They still at the moment deliver the biggest audience. In another cup cycle its hard to say. The industry outside of us is changing rapidly, but still at the moment, the biggest audience reach is still through your conventional free-to-air broadcast networks. Thats all sponsors are interested in, how many eyeballs are you reaching.

Have you had a lot of interest in sponsors?
Well we have a lot of sponsors. The teams have been able to justify sales to sponsors. Sponsors are able to justify this. A company like Nespresso is going to look at this and say, Ok, who are we going to reach with this investment? Do we invest in this event or this one, they are making hardnose marketing evaluations based entirely on what they think their return in terms of exposure is going to be for their investment. Television is how some of that return is realized. They will get some in print, some in magazines and newspaper articles, it is a whole complex bundle, but television is still a very dominant part of that evaluation.

What is your personal stake in all of this?
My passion is to turn the sport of sailing, in particular the America’s Cup, into a generally popular television property. Making the sport understandable, making it attractive. You know, making it one of those things that if you are flipping through channels on the couch you are going to say wow I am going to stop going and watch this because this is just great television.
The cup is a bit like a drug. Once you have done it once you want to keep doing it because it is so unique, because it is so different than any other sporting property in the world. It is probably the most technically challenging sporting event in the world. So the reward is delivering fantastic television off of something that is so hard to do. So as a personal achievement I would say we have delivered that, and despite all of the circumstances around how hard it is to cover the sport, we have delivered a product that is right up there with the best of everything else.
You know, we have been recognized with an Emmy already. We have been recognized with Emmy nomination last year that was just off the World Series.
The reason you do it is like, why do you climb a mountain? Because it is there and it is hard and you get a sense of achievement when you get to the top of the mountain because you have done it. I guess each time you do this event it is a challenge. It is hard and the reward is coming off the end of it and saying “we have delivered a fantastic television product that is being watched by viewers all around the world.

Then in September you walk away?
I have a holiday! Then go and look for another job. I don’t know, when you work in a freelance world that is the nature of the industry. You do a project and you finish it and move on to the next. Now, depending on who wins, if there is a world series, we might turn around and do it again.

Has there ever been a World Series before?

In the 2007 cup, the 32nd cup. They had a series of what were called “acts’ a series of events held just around Europe. That was the first time. There have been pre-regattas occasionally before. When the cup was held in New Zealand they had a couple of small regattas just with some of the participants.
But there has never been a concerted event to build a World Series. I think if you find the right economic model to make it feasible it has potential. I have been around television coverage for sailing events for a number of years now. I have never seen crowds, because we are sailing in the AC45 catamarans and you can get them close to shore, 50,000 crowds in Naples lining the shoreline. I don’t think sailing has ever had that in any other kind of event. When we went to Newport on Ft. Adams we were selling tickets and it was a sellout. THey wouldn’t let any other people in the park . What that world series has done is brought exciting sailing close in-shore so it has become a stadium event. That in itself is a major achievement. It is totally different than what has been done before. Valencia, you couldn’t see racing from the shore, Auckland you couldn’t see racing from the shore, and that was one of the factors in the decision to go to the multihulls. We sailed a regatta in Venice right along the canal. So it has brought the sport to the audience and they are coming to watch it.

I think there has been enough positives to come out of this cup between the world series and the event that you would like to think whoever wins it takes the best bits of that and carries it forward. But I think the core principles that have been developed, will be carried forward.