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Stars of stage and screen: broadcasting the Tour de France

Tour de France broadcast
Felix Lowe
3 Jul 2016

As you watch the Tour de France from your living room, are you ever left wondering how they do it? We are so we found out.

‘People only see what they are shown via the journalists commentating on the race. But behind all that there is a huge world. Yet you have no clue what it’s all for.’

Since 1997 Ronan Pensec, the French former rider who once gamely defended the maillot jaune on Alpe d’Huez, has performed a unique role as consultant to the director of the Tour de France. He doesn't report to Christian Prudhomme, the official race director and figurehead, but to the other director – a man who scripts and directs every stage of the host broadcast feed that is beamed to 190 countries and 121 different TV channels worldwide: a little-known chap with huge vision called Jean-Maurice Ooghe.

‘Ah, is that his name?’ says ITV’s Ned Boulting, a reporter once so hapless he called the leader’s jersey a yellow jumper on his first Tour 12 years ago. ‘I never knew that. But what he does is quite brilliant. The Tour is as much about putting France in the shop window and Og – is that really how you pronounce it? – understands that perfectly.’

‘My job is to broadcast as exactly as possible the scenario of the Tour – both the sporting aspect and the touristic aspect, because many viewers are more concerned with discovering the beauty of France,’ says Ooghe. It’s a job he does extremely well. 

‘The man’s a genius,’ gushes Yorkshire’s Tour supremo Gary Verity, who welcomed Ooghe ahead of the recent Grand Départ in Leeds (originally published in 2014). ‘Simply by watching him go about his job you can tell he’s at the top of his game.’

The moto men build a very good relationship with the riders – they’re like family

The actual racing may divide opinion but Ooghe’s coverage for TV company France Télévisions and beyond is unanimously seen as masterful. Boulting believes this harmony of motorbike and helicopter shots ‘augments the viewing ten-fold’, while Dan Lloyd, the former British rider and current TV reporter, describes their work as ‘outstanding’. 

Today the Tour claims a global TV viewership of 3.5 billion (although with only seven billion people on the planet we would be eager to see exactly how that figure is calculated), making it the third largest global telly event after the World Cup and Olympics. But the race’s early outings on French national TV in the ’30s and ’40s were filmed using 16mm cameras, a Jeep and a motorbike, and had to be flown to Paris for editing before being aired the following day. The first live broadcast came on the race finale in Paris’s Parc des Princes in 1948 and then, a decade later, the first live roadside pictures came from the Col d’Aubisque.

‘Things have developed quite a lot even since we started broadcasting the Tour for Channel 4 around 30 years ago,’ says producer Brian Venner, who still calls the shots for the British terrestrial coverage at age 80. ‘The French host broadcast used to be fairly basic. The signal broke up under trees and bridges – the weather used to create such havoc.’ Nowadays, the technology is phenomenally advanced. With a staff of 300, France Télévisions uses four helicopters, two planes, five camera motorcycles, two audio motorcycles, around 20 other cameras at the start and finish, and 35 vehicles including trucks and lorries. This list is as much a gross simplification of a complicated process as the chain of command is baffling – so hold your breath as we delve a little deeper.

A tangled web

ASO, the Tour organiser, enlists Euro Media France (EMF) to produce the raw video feed of each stage. With a team of around 70 people, EMF then passes on its images to its ‘customer’ France Télévisions, which through Ooghe selects, mixes and creates the single feed that is used by individual broadcasters. These channels pad out the coverage with their own original content such as interviews, commentary, graphics and advertising. ‘We don’t provide all the coverage – probably 99.9 per cent,’ says EMF director Luc Geoffroy. ‘France Télévisions does the finish line – like they would for a football match. We do all the other pictures right up to around the last kilometre.’

Key to capturing the sporting drama of the race are the motorbike cameramen. ‘The moto men build a very good relationship with the riders – they’re like family,' says Geoffroy. 'Sometimes the cyclists will actually tip off the cameramen, saying so-and-so will attack soon and giving them information right from the heart of the race.' Their top-of-the-range BMW R1200RT bikes have been modified with special generators for the heavy VHF wireless cameras and a more favourable gear box ratio to enable speeds as slow as 8kmh
in third gear without touching the clutch. 

‘Chapeau to the men on the motorbikes,’ says Boulting. ‘They’re extremely brave, strong and proficient at their jobs – and they read a bike race really well despite the abuse they often get from the riders and commissaires in the heat of the moment.’

Besides the additional gaggle of photographers, a handful of private customers (such as ASO and the American channel NBC) run motorbikes during the race. Channel 4 once paid £15,000 for this privilege – and is responsible for capturing the magical moment Greg LeMond discovered he had won the 1989 Tour on the Champs-Élysées. Despite this, Channel 4 never sent another bike on the race because of apparent opposition from the close-knit French motorcyclists. 

‘They tried to run us off the road,’ claims Venner, whose production company, Vsquared TV, now produces ITV’s Tour coverage. ‘Once, our bike took a shortcut across a corner and mangled a bike belonging to a spectator. The fans surrounded the rider and cameraman and demanded money for the repairs. As neither had any money they kidnapped the cameraman and forced the rider to return with the ransom.’

Motorbikes, helicopters, satellites…

Capturing the action from above – not to mention the iconic landscape shots so synonymous with the Tour – are two helicopters equipped with mounted Cineflex gyro-stabilised camera systems (an ‘exceptional tool’ that captures ‘wholly stabilised images whatever the conditions’, according to aerial cameraman Vincent Houeix). Like the motorbikes on the ground, pilots and cameramen work in pairs on races throughout the year, with the longest serving couple stretching back for almost two decades. One of the helicopters boasts a special wide-angle lens for the sweeping landscape shots. ‘My personal favourite is when the riders are descending into a valley and the helicopter draws alongside the road at the same altitude. It makes fantastic viewing,’ says Boulting.

Now for the technical bit. Transmitting the images directly to satellites from constantly moving sources is fraught with difficulty, so a complex system of aerial relays is needed to gather images and beam them down to stationary intermediate points along the route. For this there are two helicopter relays flying at around 600m altitude and two aeroplanes circling at 3,000-8,000m (depending on weather). While the helicopters have to come down to refuel every few hours, the planes, often unpressurised, circle very slowly for anything up to eight hours to maintain the right aerial position throughout the stage. 

‘The wind and turbulence can be bad so you need a special constitution to work on the planes,’ says Geoffroy. Equipped with an auto-tracking GPS system developed by EMF, the aircraft keep in sync with the motorbikes on the ground even when hampered by cloud and the elements.

Two EMF trucks are stationed at exposed intermediate points during each stage – three if the route is particularly long or complicated. Six technicians man each truck; the first point receives the live signal from above and sends it to a satellite and the second point forwards the signal via microwave link to the finish town, where it's picked up by four receivers mounted on a crane 50m high. The eight signals (two helicopter cameras, five motorbike cameras and one mounted on Prudhomme’s car – a new addition in 2013) are decoded at EMF’s outside broadcast truck which processes and colour corrects before sending it on to Ooghe’s France Télévisions production suite next door in the zone technique. This whole process takes around half a second.

All part of the plan

EMF and France Télévisions need eight months to prepare for the Tour. As soon as the route is revealed, technicians are busy figuring out locations for the intermediate trucks, scouting out potential pitfalls (such as high buildings and trees) and organising helicopter refuelling points. Meanwhile, Ooghe makes his own roadbook, scouting out the geographic and cultural places of interest within a 15km radius of the route so that he can ‘script’ each stage. Those elaborate displays in fields by farmers that we see each year? They come from tip-offs from the French farmers’ union complete with GPS co-ordinates so Ooghe can ensure his pilots are primed.

For his 18th Tour inside the France Télévisions trailer in July, Ooghe, who is an aesthetics man by trade, had at his disposal an immediate team of 20 people who help him understand the nuances of the race as they pick from up to 20 incoming feeds that cover one wall of the studio. 

‘If you’re filming football or tennis you can just follow the ball,’ says Pensec. ‘But in cycling it’s not necessarily the rider leading the race who’s important. It’s more tactical, and that’s where I help Jean-Mo [Ooghe].’ Pensec is rarely watching what the commentators are talking the public through; instead he’s anticipating what is going to happen in order to co-ordinate motorbike strategy. Instructions from Ooghe travel in the opposite direction via the same satellite and relay links to his puppets in the field.

Boulting – who watches the Tour in the company of former yellow jersey and prologue specialist Chris Boardman – describes Pensec’s role as ‘so important’. ‘Unless you’ve ridden in a bunch then you’re totally unaware of all the scenarios playing out. Former Tour riders see things that are invisible to the naked untrained eye.’ Not only is there a fair bit of juggling the sporting side of the race with what Geoffroy describes as the ‘geography lesson’ that attracts viewers year after year, but Ooghe has a difficult balancing act on his hands satisfying both the domestic and the ever-increasing global audience. 

‘There was a time,’ explains Boulting, ‘when, for example, the sight of Christophe Moreau [4th in the 2000 Tour] cracking on a climb was a key moment for French TV viewers but not so much for the rest of the world, yet the coverage would linger on him. Thankfully those frustrating days are long gone. The coverage is far less parochial now.’

In the zone

According to Venner, the chaotic zone technique is essentially a ‘fantastic car park, very often filled with mud. There’s tremendous camaraderie.’ The 12km of cables is the same length as the convoy of 180 vehicles in the daily publicity caravan that precedes each stage. Alongside EMF and France Télévisions, production teams from some of the 60 global TV stations covering the event live set up camp – including ITV, American big-hitters NBC, Australia’s SBS and Eurosport.

Broadcast rights are about as knotty as those cables. Here’s an attempt to untangle: ASO has two major deals in place – one with France Télévisions (thought to be worth around €24m a year until 2020) and another with the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) on behalf if its members in 56 countries in and around Europe (until at least 2019). In separate recent agreements, both NBC and SBS committed to 10-year deals until 2023, with Mike Tomalaris – Australia’s answer to Gary Imlach – claiming the ‘extraordinary’ deal (thought to be worth AUS$2m a year) is proof that ‘we’re in bed with ASO big time’. In total, ASO sealed agreements with 121 channels covering 190 countries in 2013. 

Viewers all over the world see the same pictures and basic graphics for the time gaps, which are measured by GPS transponders mounted on the TV motorbikes. ‘The only changes are when the respective nations that take the coverage localise it and cater for their own specific audience,’ explains Tomalaris, a veteran of 19 Tours. ‘That’s where I come in for Australia, where Gary Imlach comes in for the UK [ITV] and Bob Roll for North America [NBC].’ 

One thing unifies these three channels: the voices of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen. The chalk-and-cheese commentary duo (now more cheese-and-cheese) were first nurtured by Channel 4, whose pioneering coverage of the Tour is best remembered by Pete Shelley’s fabled theme music. Once the Americans started taking a serious interest in cycling (around the time a swashbuckling Texan began monopolising the maillot jaune) Liggett and Sherwen became hot property and a system of sharing was established (‘We could hardly stop Phil and Paul becoming millionaires now, could we?’ Venner says). 

As well as 15 people working in a studio back in the US, NBC boasts a lavish staff of 75 at the Tour, ‘from top notch producers and editors right down to those people ironing Phil and Paul’s shirts,’ says Tomalaris, whose relatively paltry team of nine makes SBS ‘the paupers of Tour broadcasting’.

Eurosport’s on-site team is 35-strong, including commentators in four different languages and now triple Tour winner Greg LeMond as guest consultant. Boasting similar numbers is ITV, which took over from Channel 4 in 2002 in an initial deal worth £5m. Venner’s Vsquared produces ITV’s coverage with a team of 18 in France (including the likes of Imlach, Boardman and Boulting, as well as three cameramen, four engineers, technicians, truck drivers, a producer and an assistant producer) and 20 back at Ealing Film Studios, from where the images are relayed to ITV’s transmission centre in Chiswick, west London.

Boulting appreciates the need to innovate and embrace new technology in coverage of the Tour. Last year, cameras mounted on drones were introduced and this year the big fad was bike cameras, which take spectators right into the heart of the action. Yet while these cameras can really enhance racing, Boulting reckons they should be restricted to highlights until fully mastered. ‘As incredible as they are, these images offer insight and not overview,’ he says. Lloyd agrees that bike cams ‘need to be used sparingly and at the right time or viewers will get bored’. 

There’s also the small matter of broadcast rights. ASO has image rights for everything that goes on in the Tour but it’s the teams who usually co-ordinate on-bike footage. What’s more, you sense that Ooghe, the Tour’s all-seeing eye, would not be best pleased about relinquishing control. 

Finishing straight

Once the winner crosses the line the focus shifts to post-race interviews. It may look like a disorganised media scrum, but there is a system of hierarchy, despite the swarming presence of over 200 additional cameramen in the finish zone (in 2012 a near collision forced Wiggins to call one an ‘a**wipe’ and ‘stupid c***’, and Cadel Evans famously head-butted one in 2008). 

As host broadcaster, France Télévisions has priority with interviews before riders pass through to a ‘rights holders’ zone where a system of pooling often takes place. For instance, if Mark Cavendish wins then Boulting – as the English free-to-air broadcaster – will step forward. 

‘That's why you often hear me ask the questions even on Eurosport,’ says Boulting, who describes his job as ‘a scavenger who goes in after the battle in search of jewels and trophies from the bodies of corpses’. In the absence of German terrestrial TV on the Tour (they pulled out after a spate of doping revelations involving German riders), Boulting is often asked to interview Marcel Kittel and Andre Greipel – which kept him busy once Cav crashed out in July.

By this time, Ooghe and Pensec are winding down from a hard day’s work. France Télévisions will have a post-stage programmes of reaction, interviews and analysis, but the EMF studio and intermediate points are packed up 15 minutes after the last rider crosses the line. A debriefing follows before the team leaves for the next finish town at around 8pm, stopping – if possible – for dinner en route. ‘It takes some getting used to but it’s a rhythm that’s ingrained in us, just as it is for the riders,’ says Pensec.

‘It’s amazing how everyone just does their job and doesn’t worry about anyone else,’ adds Venner. ‘Every day, everything is in the right place. The wires may look chaotic but it’s a very efficient set-up, year after year. God knows what we’d do if we had to cover this event blind. All the people involved wouldn’t miss it for the world. There may be shouting, stress and friction. But I know people who couldn’t care about anything else as long as they don’t lose their place on the Tour.’

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