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.  

Sunday Night Sailing with Stan Honey

Stadium sailing is the mantra of the 34th America’s Cup. A new venture to bring sailing into your living room and create the world’s next great television sport and; the quest for Sunday night football status.

Who better than Stan Honey then to bring sailing to life on network television. Honey is most well-known for the work he has done through his company Sportvision. This is the man behind augmented reality on television sports – hockey’s glowing puck, football’s yellow down-lines, and all manner of other televised sporting events. He is a two-time Emmy winner for his work on sports broadcasting.

But Honey is a regular renaissance man, a world-class sailor and former Rolex Yachtsman of the Year. He first gained international respect for his sailing in 1983, when Nolan Bushnell approached him to outfit his 67’ sloop, Charley, which he was entering in the Transpac. Bushnell is the inventor of Atari and at the time was flush with money having just sold it to Warner Communications.  

Honey was working at Stanford Research in geographic information systems and radars. Bushnell wanted onboard computers for his sailboat and Honey provided. He invented the first onboard computer, creating systems that calculated max speeds and told Charley’s crew how to win. Bushnell was a relative newcomer to racing, and he won with Honey’s computer.
Stan Honey- Sailing for Television

How did you get involved in the AC34?

I navigated for Larry on Sayonara from about 1995 until about 1997 and so I knew Larry from that and I also knew Larry because when I was head of technology at newscorp I met with Larry a couple of times.

Then when I was navigating on Groupama III for the around the world record, which was in early 2010, Larry won the America’s Cup. There was a Fortune magazine article with an interview with Larry Ellison in early 2010 in Fortune where they asked him, well you’ve won the America’s cup, you say you are going to do great TV, what are you going to do? Larry’s answer was he was going to look up an old sailing friend of his, Stan Honey, and they were going to put yellow lines in the water. And, that was actually the first I heard of it. At the time I was in the Southern Ocean navigating Grouphama, but thats when I figured out what came next.

Then Larry Ellison approached you?

Yea, well once I got in, I was at sea, there was a couple of messages from Ian Burns and Jimmy Spithill and so this project came out of that.

What specific things are you trying to do for the America’s Cup coverage?

Well you know, sailing, has, well all of the augmented reality systems whether its the first outline of the hockey puck or the down lines has the characteristic that there are important things to the sport that are hard to see.

Sailing has many of those. The boundaries, the wind direction, the identification of who is ahead and who is behind. So thats the thing about sailing that makes augmented reality compelling, there are so many things that are important to understand the event that are hard to see.

Have you made recommendations to the layouts of the courses?

I haven’t, the television executive producer, Dennis Harvey certainly has. So the race course design as it has evolved, has definitely taken into account suggestions from the television. Specific suggestions have come from the professional story tellers, you know the executive producer etc.

So what is your role in America’s Cup in terms of Director of Technology?

Well the original project was to help the T.V. story-tellers, the director producers, commentators, and reporters. To help them tell the story of the event. So to that end we built the systems to track the sailboats and the mark boats and then to be able to superimpose the their information on the live video. Showing where the boats are, where the wind is, who is ahead, who is behind, the boundaries the marks all that.

Having measured all of that data. We were then asked to build an umpiring system for race management and a race management system for race management. We also make that information available on the internet. So its used for mobile apps.
But the initial requirement was to enhance TV, and the subsequent requirements were the systems for umpiring, race management and the systems for mobile data.

What are you hoping to bring to the event, or help the event itself achieve?

The principal objective is to make it accessible for non-sailors. So that they can, very quickly, embrace the event. To get interested and be able to understand the competition.

Are there signs that you’ve been successful?

The ratings have been good. The shows on NBC have been given a ‘one rating’ rating. Even more importantly, the ratings have increased during the time it has been on air. So what that means, thats something TV Executives care a lot about. So that means that people who have just been browsing through the channels and come across the America’s Cup actually stop and watch. That’s a critical thing for TV executives.

Was it hard to get networks to pick up the coverage?

Well, any major sporting event you do a rights negotiation. In our case the major rights holder was NBC. It’s always a big drama to negotiate the major rights deal.
It’s a very important business decision for an event. So events take a lot of care in negotiating their major rights distribution arrangements.

So, is it going to be the next football or NASCAR?

That would be great, the jury is still out on whether sailing can be made a popular media sport like those other sports. But that is certainly a goal.

Its a beautiful sport, its outdoors, the boats are spectacular its complicated and there is a lot of technology involved, a lot of culture, a lot of terminology, alot of history. You know, sports fans tend to like all of that. They like a sport that has a lot of texture and depth to it and sailing certainly does.

The America’s Cup is a tricky event because every time someone wins it there is a new trustee. So its not a conventional sport like the NFL where there are professional managers year in and year out. So the AC is tricky in that respect. But certainly one of the hopes within the AC and the media is that sailing will become a more popular sport on TV.

One of the big challenges is the cameras in the helicopters, so thats more difficult than any of the other systems we have done where the cameras are mounted on tripods. Another challenge is the salt water. so all the equipment on the boats is more difficult to maintain because of the salt water. so technically its much more difficult than say NASCAR or Football. or baseball.

Every boat does it, so its like NASCAR in that respect.

America's Cup On Television- An Interview with Host Gary Jobson

I reached Gary Jobson a few weeks ago to ask him about the media coverage of the AC34. This will be the ninth time Jobson has done coverage for the America’s Cup.  He is a longtime sailor and former America’s Cup racer himself with an intimate knowledge of the event. Jobson will be hosting the NBC broadcasts of the races beginning in August.

(Edited interview transcription follows- author questions in bold)

Author: Are people going watch the America’s Cup?

JOBSON: We did three shows last year for NBC. They were all 90 minute live shows on the America’s Cup series. One in July, one in August, and one in October and the first and third shows, when we came on the air, we doubled our viewing audience from the beginning of the to the end of the show. The second show stayed about even- and the third show it doubled.

Usually in television, if you can maintain your audience from the beginning of the show to the end, you have generally done pretty well. What you don’t want is an audience going down. Even during the second show it went up a little bit, and I don’t know why.  It was in August and maybe a lot of people weren’t around. But, what we have learned is that people start texting each other and calling and emailing and saying ‘hey you should check this out’.

What’s it like working with the new technology?

The liveline is very cool. I immensely enjoy working with Stan [Honey]. I’m a little bit more of the artist of it and he is more the science. But when you are the commentator you have to make a bit of sense of it and use it as a tool and get the viewer engaged … You have got to do it in a way that doesn’t overwhelm the viewer where it becomes all graphics. So you still want to see the boat and the human aspect of the thing. So, the onboard cameras, the water-shot cameras, which don’t have liveline, integrated with the aerials, which do have liveline, and you get a pretty compelling picture of what is going on.

This is the 9th time I have done coverage of the America’s Cup and all America’s Cups always have their personality and all are a little bit different and have different characters and storylines. But this one is different. Because you really have to think hard about what to say that is relevant for the viewer, so you don’t want to just repeat what you see on the screen. But try and come up with something that’s not expected or some fact or something that enhances what you are already watching.

… And because these boats go so fast and there is not much time between the turning marks, you don’t have much time to talk. You have to learn how to speak in very short phrases ­–to say a lot in as few words as possible. When you are speaking it’s even harder to do that. At the same time, you have to weave your words in with what they are saying aboard the boat because its so interesting and compelling what these people talk about on the boats that you don’t want to talk over them. I have to anticipate when they are going to talk and what they might say and then, even though I might be talking about something else. I immediately have to interpret what was just said on the boat and then go onto my storyline. Then keep quiet and listen and when there are three commentators you try and get a cadence- so a, b, or b, c so we don’t talk all over each other. Somebody doesn’t just talk all the time, so it lets it breathe. When there are two others there I really think hard about what to say. So I keep trying to say something cool or interesting. It doesn’t always come out that way but you try.  I learned at ESPN 28 years ago if you make some kind of mistake on the air, you just correct it and go on and not worry too much about it.

Jobson at Work

How do you see this America’s Cup as being tailored for television?

Several things: number one, the combination of pictures from onboard, from the air, and from the water gives you a very unique perspective. Number two, the fact that we have the sailors, you hear the voices of four sailors, you know the tactician, the skipper, and key players of the boat. In no other sport are you inside the huddle. So that is unique for television.

            You know, Stan Honey, he is a smart guy to figure that out. To get the graphics, so we know precisely who is ahead who is behind, who is picking up, who is losing distance… you know interesting stats. I think that is number three.

            Four, and I speak humbly here; hopefully the commentary is compelling. You know I get emails and they say ‘oh you know you are the greatest thing since sliced bread’ and you know I get other emails that say ‘hey you are terrible’ and so you know maybe I am somewhere in the middle. So like I said it’s a bit of an art form. You don’t script this thing. You know, I might have a list of ten story ideas I might try to get in through a telecast. But you have to know the boats, and the game, and the rules and it just has to come to you quickly. And it has become an important part of this equation.

Then, is the race itself. And the best racing, just like the best sports, are close contests, we have lead changes and who wins is in doubt to the end. I don’t know if you watched the hockey series or the NBA finals, but both of them are pretty darn good. You know, there were lead changes and tied scores and back and forth and one went to game six and the other was seven games. But it’s compelling. So when you ask- what is going to get this over top- its good racing! Whoever wins the first race, I want the other boat to win the second race and at the end of the first weekend I would love to see the score two-two because then it becomes very compelling.

Well, if the America’s Cup World Series is a guide, which I think is fair to say … We found that there were surprising numbers of league changes that left on. One of these might be, lets just be generic here, maybe one is a little bit better when the breeze is 18 knots, and one is a little better when the breeze is 12 knots. Well if the breeze picks up from 12 to 18 the boat that was faster earlier is now slower. So you likely have a league change. And this foiling stuff is really fascinating; to get both hulls, up out of the water.  If one boat gets up on the foil they can go ten miles an hour faster, so if you are four lengths behind and you are suddenly going ten miles and hour faster. You are going to blow right by. So I think there are going to be these spurts of speed that will be really fun to watch. Then the close quarters, they are not out in the open ocean getting far away from each other, It forces the races to be close. So when the races are forced to be close the best part is the emotions are running. We are going to hear what they say. Its not going to be like a NASA countdown to a space shot, its going to be raw and compelling and important and mean a lot and the guys are going to be yelling hard and working and we are going to be part of it.

No other sport does that.

Why hasn’t America’s Cup been successful on television in the past?

So, there is a couple of reasons. One, it doesn’t happen consistently. I mean, it’s every three or four years we have an America’s Cup. Two, I hate to say it but it is true, a lot of people don’t understand what sailing is all about.  Why does one boat get ahead of the other? So that is our [commentators] job to try and do it.

But there are a couple elements that can help boost this up. One is the patriotic aspect. You know the United States has the America’s Cup. This thing the Americans have won 28 times over the years. Are we going to be able to hold onto it? And the winner [of the Louis Vuitton Series], wants to take the cup away.  As I’m sure you know, there is no love lost between Ellison’s team and the New Zealanders or the Italians- they don’t particularly like each other too much.

So that makes it kind of an emotional roller coaster ride and a compelling story; the intense rivalry, the patriotic element to it, the speed of the boats, the newness of it, the technology behind it the emotions onboard, you know all that. I hope combine these to get people watching, and you know if our world series is any guide- as I said two out of three shows, the viewership doubled from beginning to end of the program. And I hope that is what we see.

So is it going to become a mainstream television-sporting event?

Is it going be mainstream? I’m not smart enough to predict what is going to happen. You know, like I said maybe Ellison wins it, but I don’t know. But clearly, right after this cup, all of the players and all of the stake-holders have to sit down and say ‘OK, this happened the way it did’ what can we do to improve it and make it better. So that exercise will have to happen immediately right after the cup.