Behind the scenes of SBS’s Tour de France coverage

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SBS TV has been beaming images from the Tour de France into Australian homes for 23 years now and plenty has changed in that time. We went behind-the-scenes with the team at SBS to find out how the Tour de France broadcast is put together and more.

Somewhere in the rabbit warren of the Tour de France technical zone sits a van that SBS hires for the duration of the Tour. It’s a mobile HQ for the network’s on-the-ground crew and by all accounts it’s a considerable upgrade on what they’ve had in previous years. For a start, the whole team can actually fit inside the van at one time — no-one has to sit in the marquee outside because there’s not enough room.

You’d recognise many of the people who are in France for SBS: host Mike “Tommo” Tomalaris, presenters Dave McKenzie and Kate Bates and guest analysts Anthony Tan (from Cycling Central) and Scott McGrory (who’s currently embedded with Orica-GreenEDGE). But these familiar faces are only part of the equation.

Behind the scenes are a handful of folks that you don’t see but that are vital to the operation. There’s cameraman Ollie who works with Kate, and cameraman Ryan, who’s paired with Dave. There’s producer Stuart Randall, video editor Mark and a few French technicians who manage SBS’s satellite connections.

Together they produce the daily content that’s broadcast before and after the live coverage of the race, giving SBS’s Tour coverage an Australian flavour.

How the broadcast actually works

SBS doesn’t have its own cameras out on course — imagine how many helicopters and motorbikes would be following the race if every country’s host broadcaster had their own. Instead SBS and broadcasters in other countries take a feed provided by the host broadcaster, France Télévisions.

This live feed combines vision from all the cameras out on course and overlay graphics (time checks, riders names and so on), all mixed by France Télévisions in the technical zone at the finish line of each day’s stage. And then there’s the commentary to consider.

Matt Keenan's commentary box is located just above the finish line. Standing there talking to Matt, I could here Paul Sherwen and Phil Liggett commentating a few boxes to my left.
Matt Keenan’s commentary box is located just above the finish line. Standing there talking to Matt, I could hear Paul Sherwen and Phil Liggett commentating a few boxes to my left.

Every night SBS viewers get an hour or so of Matt Keenan before industry stalwarts Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen take over. At the Tour de France Matt actually works for the ASO, the race organiser, and his commentary can be heard in many countries around the world. Phil and Paul, too, have their commentary heard around the world, but they have an exclusive contract with US broadcaster NBC.

Every night NBC has exclusive access to Paul and Phil’s commentary until a certain time, depending on how they’ve got their broadcast structured. While Paul and Phil are commentating exclusively for NBC Matt is playing warm-up act in Australia and other countries. And when NBC decides they don’t need exclusive use of Paul and Phil for the rest of the evening, the pair starts commentating for other networks, including SBS, while Matt Keenan signs off.

With the audio commentary added to the video feed, the whole packaged is then sent by satellite to SBS headquarters in Sydney, via London and Los Angeles. It’s back in Sydney that the broadcast is put together and then put to air.

Each day video editor Mark, who’s with the team in France, creates a teaser montage for the start of the evening’s broadcast using vision from a France Télévisions feed which comes directly into the SBS van at the finish line. This is combined with Tommo’s daily introduction piece which is filmed a couple hours before SBS’s coverage starts in Australia. The pieces are bundled together and sent back to Sydney via satellite.

Throughout the day the two camera teams — Dave & Ryan and Kate & Ollie — are out getting interviews with riders and other content, to be incorporated into the pre-recorded coverage, or shown live (in the case of post-race interviews, for example). And after every stage Tommo hosts a half-hour stage recap with a guest host, filmed at the finish line and beamed back to Sydney live via satellite.

Camera team #1: Ollie and Kate.
Ollie and Kate.

Back in Sydney

There’s a team of half a dozen working back in the Sydney studio, late at night, to put the broadcast to air. At the start of the broadcast they play the pre-recorded package sent by the team in France before switching over to the live coverage when it becomes available through France Télévisions.

Throughout the night it’s the team in Sydney that controls the ad breaks, which music plays before and after the ad breaks (courtesy of the infamous but entertaining Troll DJ), when to cut between the podium presentations and Tommo’s live post-race analysis, and so on.

Behind the team of six in Sydney working on the broadcast itself, there’s another 15 to 20 people involved in SBS’s Tour de France coverage on a nightly basis, from editors of the Cycling Central website, to journalists, to Troll DJ, to the people who keep the Tour Tracker working.

The team has grown substantially since the early 2000s when it was just Tommo, a cameraman and an editor. That growth has brought with it a number of logistical challenges.

A day in the life

With the Tour de France starting in a new town virtually every day, the SBS team needs to do a lot of moving around. Here’s how producer Stu Randall described an average day for the team:

“Normally we stay at a hotel nearer the previous day’s finish than the next day’s start. Tommo, myself and Mark will leave the hotel about 7 in the morning and we’ll drive straight to that day’s finish.

Usually we have about a two to two and a half hour drive each morning to get there. When we get there we set up what we’re going to do for the top of the pre-race show, we record that, we edit that, then we send that back to Sydney.”

Camera team #2: Ryan and Dave.
Ryan and Dave.

While Tommo, Stu and Mark head straight to the stage finish, the camera teams of Kate & Ollie and Dave & Ryan split up and seek out whatever content the team needs for the day.

Normally one of the pairs will head to the stage start to get rider interviews, vision for montages and any other content that they need. From there both camera teams head to the stage finish where they watch the rest of the race in the SBS truck before filming post-race interviews.

Before packing up for the day they film segments for the daily highlights show, SBS’s online show and the post-race analysis by Tommo and a guest. Stu told us:

“We generally pack up at the finish about 7pm and it’s probably about an hour to an hour and a half that night to get to our next hotel. And that’s the easy stages.”

The big mountain-top-finish stages might look impressive on TV but they’re a nightmare for the thousands of people that work behind the scenes to keep the Tour de France running and shared with the masses.

“Two years ago we were trying to get off Alpe d’Huez and Tommo was staying in Grenoble”, Stu told us. “He left at 10pm and it took him 4 hours to drive to Grenoble [roughly 50km away]”.

The team had a similar difficulty on stage 15 of this year’s Tour when it took them 95 minutes to drive the 20km from the base of Mont Ventoux to the summit, thanks to all the riders on the road trying to get up the mountain to watch the race.

Inside the SBS van. From left to right: Stu, Scott, Mark and Mike. We fully endorse Scott's website viewing choices.
Inside the SBS van. From left to right: Stu, Scott, Mark and Mike. We fully endorse Scott’s website viewing choices.

And while rest days give viewers in the Australian time zones a chance to catch up on much needed sleep, they’re hardly restful for the SBS team.

“Our editor spends that time compiling vision and going through what we’ve seen so far, editing montage material for the next day”, Stu said. “It’s a really good opportunity for some housekeeping for him.”

For Stu and the camera crews the rest days are all about heading to press conferences and getting interviews.

Tour de France broadcast rights

While SBS now broadcasts every stage of the Tour de France live, that wasn’t always the case. It was in 1991 that the station first beamed the race into Australian living rooms and at that time it was a simple half-hour highlights package they bought the rights to and broadcast at 6 o’clock every evening.

As SBS’s Head of Sport, Ken Shipp, told me, it was the presence of Australians in the race that saw SBS ramp up its coverage in the years after that.

“Thereafter we actually sent a small team to the Tour de France each year … to provide an Australian perspective and to give essentially a hosting top and tail around that program.”

Mike "Tommo" Tomalaris (right) and Anthony "Tan Man" Tan deliver their thoughts about the stage 17 ITT which was won by Chris Froome.
Mike “Tommo” Tomalaris (right) and Anthony “Tan Man” Tan deliver their thoughts about the stage 17 ITT which was won by Chris Froome.

From a highlights package to a highlight package with an on-the-ground “top and tail” the coverage started including live stages as well. It started off small with only a handful of stages broadcast live, but these days all 21 stages are broadcast live on SBS.

As you might expect, going from broadcasting a highlights package to broadcasting the race live adds a significant financial cost.

Ken estimated that it costs roughly 10 times more to broadcast a stage live than it does as highlights, due to the cost of having a team on the ground to provide an Australian context, and the fact live broadcast rights cost more than highlights rights.

SBS is currently in the middle of a seven-year contract to broadcast the Tour de France in Australia, a contract that runs out in 2017. And this year, for the first time, SBS has the exclusive live and highlights rights for Australia, meaning Eurosport, on pay TV network Foxtel, isn’t able to broadcast more than a couple of minutes of race footage per day.

(UPDATE: An hour after this piece was published SBS announced that they’d extended their rights deal with ASO until 2023.)

Ken told me that SBS commits $4-5 million a year to cycling but was reluctant (and legally unable) to say how much of that is made up of the network’s rights agreement for the Tour de France. He also made it clear that he didn’t want the dollar figure “to be out there in the market”, for fear of giving SBS’s rivals a competitive advantage.

“I do expect there will be some competition [when the contract ends] because now that [rival networks] have multiple digital platforms like Go, and Gem and 7Mate, they’re looking for content”, Ken said. “There’s no question there’s going to be competition.”

Perhaps the biggest competition will come from the Nine Network who have showed a renewed interest in cycling in recent years and have bought the rights to the Tour Down Under.

While Tommo and his guest presenter do a live wrap-up of the day's stage, Stu writes notes shows them to the presenters, if needed, while they're talking. The note on the left says "Tomorrow will not be shortened", a clarification about the possibility of the Alpe d'Huez stage being weather-affected. The note on the right says "Ten Dam hit a spectator during ride. Not critical." This was from the stage 17 time trial.
While Tommo and his guest presenter do a live wrap-up of the day’s stage, Stu writes notes on his notepad and shows it to the presenters while they’re talking. The note on the left says “Tomorrow will not be shortened”, a clarification about the possibility of the Alpe d’Huez stage being weather-affected. The note on the right says “Ten Dam hit a spectator during ride. Not critical.” This was from the stage 17 time trial.

The 2013 Tour de France might still be in progress but the team at SBS is already thinking about the 2014 edition and considering the improvements they can make. Indeed, planning for the Tour de France is a year-round exercise.

The next year’s route is announced in October and the team books accommodation and transport shortly afterwards. Rider interviews are filmed at the Tour Down Under and the months leading up to the Tour de France are always filled with preparation.

And it’s no wonder SBS invests so much time and money into the Tour de France. The race is one of the network’s most prized assets and one of its best-rating offerings. Ken Shipp told me that mountain stages late in the Tour often attract double or triple the ratings SBS would normally receive for that particular time slot.

So as you settle in to watch tonight’s stage of Le Tour, take a moment to think about all the work and planning that goes on behind the scenes to deliver coverage of the race to your lounge room. It’s a combined effort by teams working on opposite sides of the globe to ensure that Australian cycling fans get an Australian perspective on the biggest annual sporting event in the world.

Further reading:

Thanks very much to Ken Shipp and Stu Randall for taking the time to speak with me. Thanks too to Matt, Mike, Scott, Dave, Ollie, Kate, Mark, Anthony and Ryan for letting me hang out and take photos of them at work.

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