BT Sport challenges Sky Sports' dominance with huge studio, ground-breaking tech and social media integration
BT Sport will officially kick-off on 1 August in the UK and the service has revealed how it will be taking on Sky Sports in the battle for fans' undying attention. Not only does it have a groundbreaking studio set-up, much of its strategy involves the use of technology to "tell the story" of particular sporting events and it will use social network interaction heavily to aid all manner of programming.
Studio 1 in BT Sport's Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park home is massive, with multiple areas for different shows taking up an open-plan floor space, including a dominant electronic pitch that can be converted to ape different sports' fields and courts. There are multiple video walls, with much of their use determined by the station's plans for social media. During particular shows, for example, social network feeds will be studied by both human staff, who sit in-shot in a central media hub, and automated filters. Resulting comments, pictures, video and other related content will then be fed to presenters to use as part of a broadcast.
There is the potential, even, for tweets and other postings, to be geolocated to the stadium or venue where a match or event is taking place. Sunset+Vine is one of the production companies involved in generating content for BT Sport, mainly on the live action side, and its director of digital strategy, James Abraham, explained to Pocket-lint during a studio visit that tweets and pictures originated from inside a venue could add context to a live show.
"One of the things that's been missing for me, with how Twitter has been used in broadcast, is relevance," he said. "I sometimes find myself thinking 'I don't care what that person thinks'. If we can curate Twitter to a certain extent so that it delivers tweets that are geolocated to a stadium, all of a sudden, as a member of the audience, I do care what that person thinks. They are actually there. If they've taken a picture we can see that picture.
"Twitter is a great technology for that kind of immediacy. It's the big, collective sofa that everyone can sit on together. If there's a big incident in the game or a goal celebration that the camera might have missed some of, if we can find someone that has tweeted that picture I think that's brilliant."
Twitter isn't the only feed that will be useful to BT Sport's output. A massive Vine logo adorns one of the floor-to-ceiling monitors in the main studio. "Vine is an interesting thing to explore," he Abraham added.
Sunset+Vine will also be responsible for another interesting digital add-on, it will be producing original content to go alongside highlight clips on the BT Sport YouTube channel and digital platforms. Using the existing presenter line-up, which includes big names Jake Humphries, Tim Lovejoy, Clare Balding and Matt Dawson, Abraham and his team will provide a weekly original online show which will be accessible free of charge to everyone. And in a first, some of that footage will be subsequently used on the main broadcast channels.
"BT Live will be taking a lot of our content," we were told. "YouTube will be a big channel for us, although that's not to say it's the only place it's going to go. We will have an online publishing schedule and I want an audience to know that every Monday this show gets released.
"It will probably be produced every Saturday and Sunday with our studio talent but it's live online every Monday. Then you might see parts used by BT Live on a Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
"I've never worked at a broadcaster before where content shot for digital goes on terrestrial TV."
Another part of the new station's digital plan was revealed as part of its initial announcement. As well as receiving the BT Sports channels through BT's YouView and Sky's set-top-boxes, BT Infinity customers can watch the three channels (also available in HD) for free online or through an iPad, iPhone or Android app. There are also subscription packages available for those who don't have BT Infinity broadband.
However, what wasn't revealed at the time was how exactly the apps would work. Pocket-lint was told that multi-screen access will be available when relevant to the sport - such as Moto GP bike racing - but many extra features and functionality will be added in the future, once the dust has settled after the main BT Sport launch.
"That's the key, 'In the future'," said Mark Coyle, head of digital production for BT Sport. "The real challenge comes after 1 August, and that's in developing what's there already. We've got long-terms rights here. We've got Premier League rights for three years, we've got Premiership rugby for four years, Moto GP for five years and now the FA Cup until 2014. So we're not going to try to do everything on day one.
"We want to take stock and look at what the market is doing and gradually iterate [new features] over time.
"There will be some big moments in that development roadmap."
Sky is ahead of the game when it comes to its application strategy, but BT wants to catch up rapidly. Where it is one step ahead, perhaps, is in its use of in-studio technology to aid presentation of incidents in games and matches.
The Sky Sports' live event programme line-up has used touchscreen technology for some time, with presenters and pundits using a large display to show viewers different strategies and player positions for specific in-game moments. BT Sport looked at that and realised that it had to offer something completely different. That's why it built an enormous playing field inside the studio itself.
The floor has adaptable lighting running underneath, which can be set to give the different lines found on sports pitches or courts. For example, a full-size goal with posts and net was set up during Pocket-lint's visit, and the line set-up was changed to mimic a six-yard box and penalty spot.
BT Sport's presenters and pundits therefore can actually re-enact incidents and strategies using a real ball and other members of the team or even a studio audience. If Michael Owen wants to show how a striker can roll around a defender inside the penalty area, he can do so for real, not have to rely on computer graphics. It's a very American idea of sports presentation and we suspect will take some getting used to by the station and viewers alike, but at least it is trying something different.
And that's BT Sport in a nutshell. It is not trying to be Sky Sports. It has hindsight on its side and while it may take a while to hit its stride, it is trying to offer something entirely different. BT is a technology company and technology is key to everything it does. Sports broadcasting included.