Where is the America’s Cup “TV Revolution”?

Posted on 17 August 2011 by Valencia Sailing

Since winning the 33rd America’s Cup in Valencia 16 months ago, Russell Coutts first and the America’s Cup Event Authority later, have been promising that TV production in the 34th America’s Cup would be a “revolution”. What we got instead in Cascais, the opening event of the America’s Cup World Series was anything but that for a number of reasons. Richard Worth, CEO of America’s Cup Event Authority, could very well take a trip down to the Spanish port of Cartagena next week to have a look at what the AUDI Medcup has been successfully doing for 3-4 years, at a fraction of the cost, and why not poach a few of the key people…

Why didn’t we see this kind of footage in Cascais?

Why didn’t we watch in Cascais the kind of action footage shown in this promotional video? Why didn’t TV production live up to its promise?

One major flaw, in my opinion, in the way America’s Cup Event Authority (ACEA) has been trying to sell and promote its product was to forget they are organizing, at the end of the day, a sailing event. Sailing is probably the most weather-dependent sport and weather can be capricious but it seemed this fundamental point was missed. More often than not, the AC45 fleet will be racing in winds under 10 knots rather than over 25. Although the AC45′s are truly a step ahead in technology and can indeed be spectacular, there is very little one can do when there’s just 1 or 2 knots of breeze.

This is what took place in the very first hour of live TV production of the 34th America’s Cup. The Cascais bay was covered by a dense fog, something not extremely unusual that time of the year. Race management had no option but delay racing until the fog dissipated and some decent breeze filled in. However, TV production had no contingency plan and just kept showing the 9 yachts drifting on the water. When similar conditions were reproduced in the following days, TV directors decided to air a repeat of the previous day’s races.

Even when the breeze was close to 20 knots and the boats were surfing downwind with speeds close to 25 knots, there was hardly any incident that came close to a capsize. As ACEA claims, it has the “best sailors” in the world. Most of them might still be inexperienced but as they put more sailing miles under their belts they will handle the boats even better, further reducing the chances of spectacular incidents under light to strong breezes. They aren’t the world’s best sailors for no reason and they, certainly, aren’t stupid. They will learn fast.

If you can’t get collisions, crashes and “capsizes that result in two-story falls for the athletes” every time you have a race and you can’t “reveal just how heart-pounding and dangerous the sport can be” (as per the press release of 9 May 2011), then you have to tell a story.

This is the second point were TV production didn’t measure up to the high standards one expected from the pinnacle event of any sport. This is not because I say so but because the vast majority of the feedback, whether in person or through emails, reflected that. Russell Coutts is the CEO of the defending team and has appointed ACEA to run the event on their behalf. Whether we disagree with their decisions or vision we have to take it or leave it. That’s the essence of the America’s Cup.

A cornerstone of their TV production philosophy is that sailing has to be simplified, others call it “dumb down”, in order to attract a larger audience, beyond its core group of sailing fans. That decision has been taken and there is nothing we can do. Who knows, it could even turn out to be a turning point and bring thousands of new sailors. What is then the best solution to simplify sailing on TV? Take a production group of experts and ask them to “dumb it down” or pick a group of people with absolutely no previous experience of the sport and expect them to “smart it up”? While the former seems the most obvious choice, ACEA opted for the latter and brought in people from car racing to run TV production.

They might be very successful in their previous sport but it would be overly optimistic to pretend they would instantly become experts! Sailing is a complex sport and it’s difficult to see how someone that doesn’t know its intricacies will explain them to absolute beginners. There are undoubtedly major technological advances such as the crisp clear onboard sound or amazing live onboard video but these are bits and pieces that need to be put together to tell the story of the race.

While coverage of match racing was fairly good, with just two boats simultaneously on the race course, fleet races were dreadful. At times it was impossible to make head or tail and the only information we would get was a ticker with the distance of each boat from the leader. In any race, no matter what boats they are sailed on, the mark rounding order is one of the easiest ways to get track of each boat’s performance in every leg. For some unknown reason, it seems that in the “new” America’s Cup we don’t need to know that information.

Although the leading boats, mainly Emirates Team New Zealand and Oracle Racing 4, offered us some intense races within the race, the rest of the fleet was largely ignored. We would often see the camera focus on the leading boat in the last 400-meter leg and then remain on the winners giving high fives and debriefing while missing all the action further down behind. There were also interesting races within the race for 4th or 5th place but they were largely ignored. The kiwis could very well be the world’s best sailing team but if “second-tier” teams don’t get airtime they will be a hard sell to their potential sponsors.

Again, an expert can be easily taught to say “left-right” instead of “port-starboard” but a novice director will not be able to see what is really going on in the race course and focus his camera there. You might have the best commentators in the world but if they’re sitting in a booth they only see what the director chooses to show them.

It is impossible to have overlay graphics from that angle and altitude. Photo copyright Morris Adant / Aleph Equipe de France

Stan Honey’s “breakthrough graphics”

Another point were promises failed to become reality was the much hyped “liveline”, the overlay graphics on live real-life TV footage from the race course. We had seen some shots in the past but Honey’s “augmented reality” from a helicopter failed to appear in the first few days of the event. Instead we had the good old Virtual Eye. When we did get the promised goods, reality was, unfortunately, below expectations.

I do understand it is a highly complex system but it seems we could only get the livelines from one of the helicopters and only from a set perspective and a, very high, altitude. As a result, the yachts were so small that the only solution was to have enormous flags drawn over them. Again, the graphics we see in the promotional video were nowhere to be seen. Instead of the Virtual Eye animations racing in a virtual race course we now had flags racing. Once the camera changed the graphics would go away.

It is, undeniably, a major step in the right direction but I fear it is another example of over-promising and under-delivering. The America’s Cup is, probably, the only sailing the vast majority of viewers will ever watch. It also the sport’s premiere event and as such, it should abide to high standards and not improvise as it moves on. It can become the first and last sailing many people might watch.

Another example of the pitfalls of relying too much on technology are the penalty and boundary indicators. Commentators had no idea when a boat was carrying a penalty and when it was offloaded. At times we could see an AC45 stalled without knowing whether it was due to crew fault, gear failure, bad maneuvering, lack of wind or a penalty. Again, if the aim is to make sailing to simpler mainstream viewers, I fear this new system makes things even more complicated. I still haven’t understood how umpires decide a penalty has been offloaded. I remember a press conference where Iain Murray was referring to 75% of VMG or something similar. Try explaining that to someone that has no idea about sailing.

The positive aspects

There are certainly many positive aspects in what we saw in Cascais, in particular the AC45 yachts, even if it was just for the fact they can have a decent race with 4-5 knots of wind. Had that event taken place in the old ACC V5 yachts we would have probably missed two or three days of sailing, unless the race course was taken to where the TP52′s usually go in the last 4 years, approximately 10 miles offshore. There is simply no other option than a catamaran if one wants to hold races very close to the shore.

The simple advance in technology has brought things that 5-10 years ago might have sounded like science fiction. However, with a TV production budget running into the hundreds of millions of dollars those things should be taken for granted.

The live stream through Youtube is also a major advance, in particular the multi-screen feature. Still, there is a feature that appears not to be entirely coherent with the aim of “dumbing down” the sport. The two onboard channels are definitely targeted at hard-core sailing fans. In fact, sailors love them because they can have a privileged seat and listen to what Dean Barker and Ray Davies are talking about and how they decide tactics.

Conclusion

There is a long list of things that need to be fixed, as Terry Hutchinson stated in the closing press conference. The sport of sailing needs the America’s Cup to be very successful because its future depends on it but in Cascais, we didn’t see any revolution, not even an uprising or insurrection. Still, it’s not extremely difficult! All ACEA has to do is build upon the excellent TV production the AUDI Medcup has been doing for just half a million euros a year!!

Trying to reinvent the wheel at this level of the game is useless and perilous. Just ask Michel Hodara, COO of America’s Cup Management in Valencia, who brought in people from game shows production to run America’s Cup TV in 2005. Guess how quickly they were replaced…

27 Comments For This Post

  1. Anthony Kotoun Says:

    For the first go around, I thought it was great. I didn’t get much work done when it was on!

  2. acintel Says:

    As you state it, there really is one problem with ACEA:

    Over-promising and under delivering

    They then need to constantly issue self congratulating releases, as no one else would congratulate them for everything and anything.

    But reality is they have delivered an event and if useless Worth and Thompson had some humility to start with, everyone would say: “not bad for a first”.

    So, one more time, we have to wait and see.

  3. Bluuewaterseas Says:

    I wish I had the ability to have seen it, regardless, these boats are fast, require snap decisions, especially tactically and the thought of being on one and racing is excitement enough for me. Anyone who has sailed a Hobie cat in 20 knot winds, knows the adrenaline it can produce. To get back on track, here, They just need feedback, interpret it and make it better for the next coverage.

  4. William M Griffin Says:

    I’m not sure we were watching the same thing? Sounds like you should try taking your head out of the toilet?

  5. Erik Says:

    SUPER SUNDAY!!!!!

    The idea is great and needed for a long time. But this is not new!
    In 1988 with the first pro sailing events taking place with the Ultimate Yacht Race and the better Pro-Sail events they also drafted in the NASCAR guys to run the show, it was very low Tec now but at least you had commentators who could talk in terms that non sailors could understand. This Montgomery commentator is like 100 years old now, he did the play by play in 1983!!!! The on the water people were lost, they could not pronounce the sailors name correctly and after some time just gave up on the crew names and just went with the boat names.
    Look it’s their first try at it so will cut them some slack but we are sailing F1 boats on a short track and we have back yard cricket commentators doing the play by play. Get NASCAR guys back in there and make it the SHOW that can sell!
    The racing was fun to watch! The boat speed on the TV was great, gave non sailors an idea how fast it is. The flags on the boats were cool and with the cam work from the chopter not that great it gave a good idea where everyone was.
    Super Sunday is a great idea!!! Who wants to watch 4 hours of boats going around and around on a Sunday afternoon.
    One thing that I can say it’s good to see the AC back on live TV, with a few changes this is going to be very BIG!!

  6. Facebook generation Says:

    I agree with all you said exept for the Boat, I still think that a very light and permormance Monohull with a Gennaker sail will be as fiscal fun and good to watch plus can race very close to shore.
    The race will not be as much as wind related and the sailor will be able to sail same good MR, sure the race ETNZ and Oracle 4 were good but with a lot of issued, there were no passin line down wind and upwind if close match there was no way they could defende they position, the dial down was not working and if you want to switch side upwind probably would be too late when you realize it……

    The format is very complicate, should be simple and I will love to see more Match race and less fleet race….

    Buy the way some of the best sailor in the World were not there…..

  7. Hase Says:

    I agree that the overall spectacle was lacking. The course was a joke removing the best thing about sailing, tactics. It is like playing chess and not allowing diagonal and horse moves. Simpler, but is it better?
    This attempt to keep teh boats together and create artificial excitement is due to the boat. Fast it maybe, but close racing? No way. When it costs 80m for a gibe and similiar for a tack, then only 1 strategy is right. Bang the corner (works better if it is the correct corner :P)

    VERY POOR

  8. lalee Says:

    does pierre orphanidis still own/run this blog?
    No press credentials issued? sour grapes?

  9. Rob Weiland Says:

    More show than sport. Holiday On Water.

    Sport stars making money from their reputation in a stadium setting. Nothing wrong with that, if that is what you tune in for. Interesting to watch the technical aspects and ideas of the coverage. Some good, some not so good, plenty of funding is the first thought. But if you ever get to large audiences of what must be mainly non sailors it might be sustainable if you find sponsor interest for that market. That is two “if’s”.

    Commentators trying to spice things up became irritating pretty quickly. Understand they are going to have 2 stream commentating, the constant high-five job using about 200 words and experts. The sooner the better.

    The cats are very stop & go, they are sort of clumsy boxes when stopped and very cool weapons when go. But while faster than monohulls the speed difference is not that big to be noticeable on the screen as the “cut the water effortless”. They are never elegant in close combat or manoeuvring, nor really fascinating when under control. In a way they are most attractive when out of control, for that you need substantial breeze. The repertoire of manoeuvres is limited, especially noticeable when match racing, and soon boring. Furling or unfurling the gennaker was the main heart stopper this week. Constant corner banging is indeed boring, throw the dice. The crews never looked at ease on the trampolines. This will improve, it is early days, but quite a few will never manage to look cool.

    Racing close to the shore hardly ever provides “fair” racing, whatever we understand that to be. It might provide spectacle, but than you have to be even closer than in Cascais. Possibly okay for the AC45 Show, but to loose the AC because your main goal is providing a good show will be a step too far once you have invested all those millions.

    Poaching the MedCup key people, you wrote down to fuel the discussion. If it would be that simple… MedCup is a few steps further in defining their product, as they should be after all those years. AC has set the first steps in the new format, but it has the all inspiring old mug as its main attraction, so it will always have bigger budgets and bigger audiences. MedCup I am sure will appreciate your praise. In the end it is teamwork and it takes practice.

    All in all it is an expensive but interesting exercise from which we all learn a bit. Personally I like more sport and less show. But possibly you need even more show to finance the sport? Even then I can not imagine that investments of 100 mio or more to win the cup and years of building the most perfect boat and team are going to be put at risk on a race track that requires more luck than skill to come out on top. Even if there would be big money in it for all, winners and losers, I still feel the cup will be more important for the large majority of them. I have not seen many out there that lose any boat race lightly.

  10. VR Says:

    I was really looking forward to Cascais. I have not been a fan of the catamaran switch in AC but after haveing SO MUCH fun watching the Medcup it was just about watching more sailing, no matter what kind of boat it was. I thought I was going to have as much fun and excitement…

    …but I didn’t. I cannot say why, but I didn’t liked it. Watched racing on sunday, then the match race Oracle vs ETNZ and that’s all. I did not felt any excitement and did not felt the need of staying in front of the computer. I slept midrace too.

    And another point that don’t know if its important or not, but it caught my attention: watching medcup I could see a phantastic place, great sailing venue yes, but also a beautyful loandscape. This time I could not see any single sight of Cascais I liked or looked special.
    I know Cascais personally. I am not portugese but have been racing there several times and know what the ACtv showed was way less what they could have.
    Spectacular venues also do a lot for the sport. Have you ever watched cliff-diving on TV? Its allways the same, but the venues look soooo nice you just can get interested because of that.

    Disappointed.

  11. VR Says:

    PS: Loosing the fight of a standard windward start has been the biggest disappointment about the new racing format. Races loose too much in my opinion.

    +tactics -handling

  12. catdog Says:

    As a person who has beeen in three AC`s I think it was the some of the best close quarters yacht racing ever televised .
    I was very anti this path for the cup ,but I have to say I didn`t get up to go to the toilet while the racing was on thats for sure!
    I think there were a few problems which I am sure will be fixed,but I have to say maybe Russ was right.
    I guess the proof of the success will be sponser dollars for the smaller teams to go all the way to the main event.

  13. Wayne Says:

    Overly harsh. It was the first race and no matter how much money you have, without prior experience of an actual live event, it is impossible not to make mistakes, and plenty were made. I’m sure they are going over their coverage in minute detail and I would expect there to be a great improvement next time in Plymouth.

  14. Lightbulb Says:

    I have to say that is a pretty harsh assessment, did Pierre really write this?? I am a life long Cup fan since the days of the 12 metres and have found every edition fascinating including the DOG matches, that’s what the Cup is all about. If you win it you get to do pretty much what you want with it and although I was skeptical about the change to cats it was Oracle’s call to make and I think it is the right one now.

    For the first event and the first go I thought the coverage was excellent and I’d take it over the MedCup coverage any day although I thoroughly enjoy watching that circuit too. Already looking forward to Plymouth next month to see what is served up and have no doubt an already good product will be improved with every event.

  15. Windy Says:

    Too harsh, indeed. The author must sit on a “second-guess committee” which meets on his couch. I’m sure there will be improvements. My gosh, it was the first time. Non-sailors in my office, who I encouraged to watch, were fascinated with the coverage.

    One critique however. Last night’s coverage on versus, particularly the first 30 minutes, was so chopped that it was difficult to enjoy . . . perhaps it was intended for those who enjoy televised rock concerts where one’s ability to concentrate for more than a nano-second is challenged. Enough of the computer geek who likes to “enhance” the shot. Too much of the “Facebook Generation?”

  16. Andrew Says:

    There are no revolutions in this new format. What they have achieved is to basically try and re-invent the Exteme 40 series, only with a few mods to the boats. The Extreme series are light years ahead when we talk about being able to get a fleet of boats to look interesting, and to keep a crowd engaged.

    This has been a wonderful excercise for the USA to take the cup, talk a lot about how great they are going to make it, and then basically mix the X40 series with the old cup. Sadly, the result isn’t the perfect harmony – more like the old IACC racing in 4x fast forward, and without any real close contact match racing or sailing combat, and when there is something it happens so fast that anyone watching is left going “what happened there” whereas at least in the old IACC boats, it happened slowly enough to get people to hear the explanation.

    This cup bores me already. I think Alinghi will be watching and laughing now – after all, their cup was at least a success in terms of bringing in crowds, providing very very close racing and keeping the suspense. Sure, the boats were slow – but perhaps that was the key after all… Looking back at where Alinghi wanted to take the cup – with faster big monohulls, its hard to believe that the concept wouldn’t have worked – and we could have saved all these years of timewasting just to try and show how big Ellisons bank account is…

  17. Morgan Says:

    I only watched the compilated event on VS and was underwelmed. The first half of the show was like watching an MTV video. My head was spinning. Neadless to say by the time Sunday final began I did not have the feel of where the competition was going into the final. Yes there was a leader board but the show failed to have me emotionally envoled by the time we reached the Sunday fleet event. The Sunday event got the most coverage which naturally it would in a one hour overview show but the breeze was marginal so it lacked trill. As far as next generation graphics go 6 boat length red circles are pretty but unless you tell the dumb down people what they mean whats the point. And there are some things that you should just educate people about. On the water speed is denoted in knots no mater where in the world you are. Because we are in Europe the speeds are in KPH? Are the events in the states going to be in MPH? No, the speed should be in knots and tell the audience what a knot is in KPH and MPH. You can do a better job of smarting up your audience.

  18. On the fence Says:

    Well I am on the fence, I did enjoy the coverage mainly due to the speed and crews having to make decisions quickly and the coverage allowing us to see them making these decisions. However my main concern is that the format really is selling out sailing. Reaching starts, very small race area etc very much limit the “chess game” and it is this game that makes sailing what it is, not just a side show with waving checkered flags race car stylie! Sadly for me I dont like watching race cars!

    If I could change one thing with the new sailing format, I would go back to upwind starts or alternate upwind and reaching(only upwind starts for match racing).

  19. fernando peixoto Says:

    I think it is great mistake to try to focus on making sailing a tv atraction to non sailors.
    Tv coverage should,first of all, excel to sailors.
    There are so many other sports boring,slow paced and hard to tell who is winning thru the images with huge tv coverage.
    Golf is everything of the above and I don’t think that installing a camera on the player’s cap or on the
    tip of the club , or a radar graphic to follow the ball, would be anything but stupid !!!!
    Match race with boats that can’t tack, can’t cover and without maneuverability is as stupid, even if they do 25 knots in a straight line.

  20. Chris Martin Says:

    I was extremely dissapointed with the coverage fo this event. At the start itwas hard enough to find the live feed, when i did was not very happy it was only avaliable in 480p not the much talked about promise of new Super clear HD footage (1080p). Also until reading this i was unaware that there were other camera angles i could view. Where is the promotion of this, im a serious sailor and struggled to find it what about the guys that dont know anything about sailing.

    Also where was the TV coverage, you’re not going to get the general public watching if you have to find the coverage through a youtube channel.

    in my opinion the now dead Louis Viutton Trophy series is sorely missed and was run much much better, had tv coverage here every day on eurosport. live good quality streaming coverage clearly showing leading distances, penalties, marks, times, course wind. Almost all of which was missing from this AC series.

    All this not to mention the new course and the removing of virtually all prestart tactics (and tactics in general) and excitment of the first cross as its just a drag race reach to the first mark and the boats turn so slow, as unexciting to watch as a hobie cat race.

    If they fix the Live coverage they could possibly salvage some entertainment at least.

  21. Jim Bob Says:

    I thought it was great

  22. stgeorges70 Says:

    Overall it will get worked out (hope so) and I liked the live streaming overall – there were technical issues that everyone seems to have experienced that aren’t quite smooth.

    My observations:

    1) I liked the new AC45s as I think their acting as primers to the AC72s will be required for all teams to be able to master the dynamics of a wing sail at that AC72 scale, especially in SFO. The acceleration was very cool as well as the change of leader, etc.

    2) I felt the graphics were very poor – like this was some type of test run. The boat trails looking like spraypaint versus concise dots as ‘breadcrumbs’ or lines was visually unappealing. The checkered flag and finish line was cheesey.

    I think the commentating needs an immediate overhaul: Geordie Shaver trying to sound like Dick Vitale was rediculous. Nice energy, but tone down the ‘dude-ish’/lingo-laden comments.

    Peter Montgomery sounds too biased when ETNZ overtake or make a move he likes. Too many mind farts as it sound like they just flew him in and too slow to take it in; he didn’t sound like he knew much about the new format, and especially how to commentate on it. His mindless banter with Geordie Shaver had me hitting the ‘sound off’ button constantly.

    Take a cue from Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen from Versus TV/Tour de France or Peter Lester from LV Trophy.

    While sailors are known to swear…get the crews to clean up their language or pull the on-board audio. All I heard was “f***” this and “f***” – if you want parents letting their kids watch it – sailing as a “clean sport” – then clean up the language.

    3) Needed better context of the overall course and wind direction. Maybe AC need to post a video and page on how: sailing regattas work, fleet vs. match tactics, the evolution from fabric sails to wingsails, etc. A nice little primer or “AC45/72 101″ would be good for non-sailors as well as sailors if done well.

    4) The americascup.com website is very confusing. the navigation is very poor and trying to find anything on it is a pain. keep it simple.

    5) How about some merchandise for AC and the teams in a shop? I am sure they’d appreciate the additional exposure and some revenue. Who launches a major event without merchandising/marketing? Yeah, I know it’s coming, it’s coming…

  23. Hase Says:

    Come on guys,
    open your eyes. It was terrible! What the f4£k is a checkered flag doing at the finish line? The girl could not even wave it gracefully. This has killed sailing.

  24. d'alba Says:

    a checkered flag on the finish line…
    helicopters flying around…
    watercrafts screaming trough…
    etc etc…
    Sailing as a new circus

    Not to mention the boats competing on formats that are unknown to most, tv reporters included, or
    chinese and korean crew made of non chinese or korean sailors, or french multi-hulls specialists beaten big time, and last but not least ”legend” RC, winner of several AC, capsizing, and beaten by young fellows…

    what is next?

  25. d'alba Says:

    quick review:
    a checkered flag on the finish line…
    helicopters flying around…
    watercrafts screaming trough…
    etc etc…
    Sailing as a new circus

    Not to mention the boats competing on formats that are unknown to most, tv reporters included, or
    chinese and korean crew made of non chinese or korean sailors, or french multi-hulls specialists beaten big time, and last but not least ”legend” RC, winner of several AC, capsizing, and beaten by young fellows…

    what is next?

  26. J Says:

    I have to agree with Hase about the checkered flag! Getting the gun is understandable to anyone. I didn’t really realized they had finished! If you really want a flag like motorsport fine, but have the gun as well. I didn’t notice, but did the have a start gun?

  27. richiep40 Says:

    The next round is here in Plymouth today, we have the remnants of a US cyclone coming in, there will be no problem with light winds. They have moved the start time for Sunday forward by two hours to hope avoiding having to cancel the racing. The Met Office are putting out warnings for the North of England and Scotland on Sunday night. All this on what is apparently a tight course for these boats.

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