Early this year, Showtime Arabia wrested power from long-time regional English Premier League (EPL) rights holder and rival pay TV operator, ART by outbidding it for the broadcast rights to the next three seasons of the Premiership starting August/September 2007. The battle, however, is only half won. To win the other half, Showtime will have to provide a Premiership coverage that will far outdo anything that ART has ever produced in order to win the rival's subscribers over to its own platform.
Heading Showtime's production team is Charles Balchin, a 30-year TV veteran, who was brought in from the ART fold. "The best two times of my life in TV were when I did start ups. I set up Sky Italia in Milan, for instance. This project at Showtime is also essentially a start up. The pressures are amazing in such cases because you are given a blank sheet of paper and you have to create everything from scratch. When I went to ART, there were some things I could not change even if I wanted to because ‘that's the way we did it'. Here, we were able to sit down and say ‘what's the best way to do it'," says Balchin.
Showtime had a little less than six months to implement the team's plans. Within that time frame, the pay-TV operator planned to put in place a whole new HD-ready production and playout facility to cover the English Premier League and also put together a well-qualified team that could run the show.
The immediate task for the operator was to identify an area within its headquarters in Dubai Media City, from where it could run the show. Its best bet was a huge warehouse.
"We had a warehouse and a dream. Now the dream is taking shape every moment. Within a period of two-and-a-half months, we took what was our warehouse filled with satellite dishes and decoders and have built two identical studios - one for the English coverage and one for the Arabic, two audio control rooms and two gallery control rooms," says Balchin.
The two studios are equipped with four HD-capable Sony cameras - three on the floor and one, mounted on the ceiling. "We have put in high definition equipment but we will be transmitting in SD this year. We think it might be HD next year. We have ensured that with everything we have bought - all we have to do is either add an extra chip or flick a switch and we will able to transmit in HD. There was no point in doing it any other way," comments Balchin.
The entire project in terms of design, supply and integration was undertaken by Sony Professional Solutions Middle East along with Showtime's technical team, headed by ex-BBC veteran, Mike Whittaker. Lighting for the studios was supplied by Dubai-based distributor, DST.
At the time Digital Studio interviewed Showtime, the broadcaster was nine days away from its first programme. People were still drilling holes and knocking nails in.
But what one got to see was a plethora of state-of-the-art equipment across the board. It was obvious that several millions of dollars had been invested into just acquiring the equipment. Sony High Definition cameras and vision mixers, a six-channel EVS for slow motion, Vizrt systems for graphics and Telestrator's Point system for on-air sports commentators are only a small portion of the technology that has been purchased.
Balchin, however, adds that while Showtime hasn't skimped on equipment, it has also been careful to hire industry professionals. "In my experience in the Middle East, one of the major problems with broadcasters is that they buy equipment worth millions of dollars but do not spend a few extra thousand to have the best people operate it. If I drive a Ferrari Formula One car, I might go around in six minutes but if Michael Schumacher drives it, he will go around in one-and-a-half minutes. We need to hire the best and I can confidently say that Showtime has the equipment and the people."
At the time, the pay-TV operator had already taken on board a full time team of more than 32 people to handle its sports broadcast operations, and this did not include the engineering team, the commentators or the additional freelance staff.
What Showtime has attempted to do is create a rapport with its Arabic audience and also build up the excitement by producing a reality show just before the start of the Premier League. Dubbed Hezz Al Malaab, the show would allow the winner to be part of Showtime's Arabic commentary team.
Several thousands of Arab football fans from across the region participated in the competition, claims Balchin. "There were five programmes; the first of which was held in Egypt. Eight were chosen. They were then put up at a villa in Dubai and they had to go through some competitions. As the people who were going to work with the winner, we needed to ensure that whoever won this competition was truly capable of being a good commentator. Their knowledge of the EPL and voice testing were also important."
The final three contestants were sent to the UK to meet with some of the players, watch them train, look at new interview techniques at Sky Sports and so on.
The winner of the contest, Khalid Al Fahid, a Saudi Arabian national, who received the maximum number of audience votes joined the Showtime Arabic commentary team where he was asked to commentate on the Middlesborough V Blackburn Rovers game on the first day of the English Premier League season.
"This is the first time we have done something like this and we hope to encourage audience participation for some of our other content as well- maybe have a movie chat show, a weekly roundup etc," explains Balchin.
Perhaps some of the biggest challenges associated with this project have been the time scale and the logistics. "There were no questions about whether the kit would work. They would, eventually. But we did have logistical issues. Getting someone from the UK, for instance, is easier as they can get their visa stamped on arrival at the airport. One of our commentators had to come in to Dubai from Egypt. A visa could take two weeks and we were going on air in seven days. We didn't have two weeks," says Balchin.
"Then again, when we decided to rebuild our warehouse, we knew that any delay would be a problem. A request to change the warehouse to a studio was one instance. We thought it would take three days; it t took seven. We hadn't even started work and we were four days behind. But these are the typical problems that crop up in this kind of an environment," Balchin says.
The pay-TV operator has also opted for a tapeless environment. "If it is coming on tape, that's about the last time you see tape in this building," says Mike Whittaker, director of Engineering and technology at Showtime. "We ingest that material and make broadcast copies that are then made accessible to everyone around for editing," he explains.
Whittaker worked at the BBC for 18 years before he joined the Showtime team. Putting this system together for the Premier League has been a big challenge, he says. "We have built three sports transmission suites and they are not out of the box. There was a lot of systems integration in the last six months and it hasn't been easy."
Sony's role in the whole system supply and integration has been crucial to getting the project up and running on time, confides Whittaker.
"Sony did Phase 1 and Phase 2 for us. They have a strong presence here. A company of that size alone can do something like this - getting in third party suppliers and integrating the whole thing this quickly. We also required someone who could provide 24/7 support locally. Sony understood our requirements and was able to do it at a competitive price and within the very aggressive time scales we had. They got the transmission done from the ground up in six months and the studios in four."
As technical head, Whittaker states that his challenge was to ensure that the team could get the whole thing out in time. "We worked closely with sport when we designed the transmission room to ensure that we were able to meet their requirements. At the same time, we had to make sure that we got it all done in time. I have a fantastic team under me so that really helped."
Transmission has been built from the ground, says Whittaker. "The core components in the transmission area are Pebble Beach automation, Miranda for on air branding and the Harris Nexus servers for editing."
One thing that Showtime will try hard to prove with the Premier League is that it can do production better.
"People spend a lot of money on rights but don't really take much effort to get it right production wise," says Andy Warkman, head of sport at Showtime Arabia. "We don't want to make that mistake. We want to give our viewers a remarkable step up in the quality of production that is on par with international channels. For the last few months, that has been our mission."
And it looks like Showtime has gone all out to try and put together a commentary team that will make a difference to production. On the English team are sporting stalwarts like Rob McCaffrey, Derek Whyte and Ray Wilkins, while the Arabic commentary team includes Ali Alawieh, Khaled El Ghool and Ali Fawz among others.
"Having an editorially-competent team is very important," states Balchin. "The two have to be married - our presenters and analysts, and our guests. Getting Rob McAffrey, an unbelievably well known name in the UK was a real coup as was getting Ray Wilkins and Derek Whyte. The people we have on our Arabic team are also top brass names. This is as good a lineup as the BBC or Sky or anyone. I'd say this is proper grown-up television. If what we do is shown on Sky Sports in the UK, I don't think anyone would think it was a bad show. They'd think it was from Sky Sports."
Four students from the SAE Institute in Dubai have also been given the opportunity to see how the entire show is being run. "It will be a great experience for them while it gives us a few extra hands. This is one of our ways of working with the community," Balchin says.
Showtime has also hired a company called Wild Tracks to give it additional technical staff. "Technical support is absolutely vital. We have our own excellent people but we need the backup," says Balchin.
In the meantime, ART is not sitting back and watching its subscribers go to the rival platform. It is concentrating on securing the rights to broadcast regional football matches, which also have a big fan base among Arab viewers. It has also already won the rights to broadcast the Saudi League next year and is getting its own facility HD-ready for the big show.
While Showtime's investment is impressive, we will have to wait a whole season to see if it has achieved its mission of luring more subscribers away from rival platforms to its own.
Key kit in the Studios & the Galleries
Sony HDC-1500//U HD colour cameras
Sony BRC-H700P HD 3ccd camera (ceiling)
Canon HJ17EX7.6 B IASE lenses
Stanton Triangle Super Jib
Sony MVS-8000ASF switcher
Sony MVE-8000A multi-format processor
Amazon Tally & UMD system
EVS Slo Mo
ADC Video patch panels
Tektronix Waveform monitors
Probel routing system
Axon for interfacing, distribution and conversion
Sony LMD monitors
Sennheiser mics & transmitters
Pebble Beach Automation
Harris Nexio HD/SD Server
Harris Velocity NLE system
Trilogy Broadcast Reference Systems
Sony MCR desks