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.
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.
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…