SPREADING THE WORD
The Circuit of Ireland gambled on a pioneering idea for TV, and it worked. By David Evans
There was a man – or a woman – sitting somewhere in Peru watching Sebastian Marshall in a hat and in the rain in Northern Ireland.
Our South American friend stayed tuned as Marshall introduced us to a timekeeper kitted out entirely in high-vis. Had it not been for the density of cloud cover and accompanying drizzle, the Dayglo orange outfit could probably have been seen from Lima itself.
The entirely pleasant chap explained his role before excusing himself to go and talk to the driver of a course car, leaving Marshall to fill some more. Which he did. Brilliantly.
And still we watched. And watched in numbers measuring in six figures.
The decision to beam last month’s Circuit of Ireland around the world live was genius. Not to mention a roaring success. What it wasn’t was rocket science. Ten years ago (probably more like 15 now) then World Rally Championship rights holder David Richards talked about the potential for watching rallying on your mobile phone, wherever you might find yourself on planet Earth.
Rallying, DR reckoned, was tailor-made for the internet and the internet was tailor-made for telephones.
A decade and a half down the line, Bobby Willis (the Circuit of Ireland’s event director) proved David Richards right.
For two days, co-drivers Marshall and Trevor Agnew and sports broadcasting gurus Jon Desborough and Lisa O’sullivan fired colour, humour, insight, detail, news and, most importantly, pictures into the Circuit’s corner of cyberspace.
As soon as the Belfast event was up and running on the Friday morning, a studio on the outskirts of the city went live with Desborough and Agnew anchoring almost 24 hours of internet telly.
Out on the road, Marshall and O’sullivan interviewed everybody and anybody from regroups, service and the end of stages. Between the chat, there was pre-recorded action from the stages and plenty of banter. It was rallying’s very own, muchdelayed eureka moment.
The upload ability has been around for years and camera technology’s now cheaper and more accessible than ever before – which begs the question of why this kind of broadcast opportunity is missing at the sport’s highest levels. The answer is a simple one: media rights.
There was day-long coverage from last year’s Rally GB, brilliantly hosted by Steve Rider and Henry Hope-frost – but it was only available in the service park and on big screens in the stages. Millions of folk around the world would have lapped up such a service.
Undoubtedly, Willis’s plans would have caused consternation among the Eurosport types who promote the ERC and do so to sell television around the world. Willis comes at this from a different angle.
“I don’t see what we did as being in competition with Eurosport’s brilliant coverage of the Circuit of Ireland,” he says, “of course it wasn’t. What I think we did was drive people to the coverage. We plugged the Eurosport coverage and I think people would have been more tuned in to the television coverage than ever after watching the live stream.”
Willis is justifiably proud of what he and his team achieved last month.
“As far as I can see, we’re the first rally at this [ERC or WRC] level to do this and it was a huge achievement,” he says. “We’ve always been very well aware of the potential for streaming; in 2012 we streamed the Newtownards stage and planned more for the following year.”
Heavy snow stopped the Circuit in its tracks in 2013, but the masterplan was always at the forefront of Willis’ mind. Earlier this year, he decided to jump in and see what could be achieved.
“One of the things I’m most proud of,” he says, “is the way we’ve pulled in local resources to make this work. We’ve worked with Northern Irish internet technicians and media experts. What we ended up with is, I believe, a fantastic product that everybody can be very proud of.
“At the time there were a few folk who asked if we needed to do this, couldn’t we and shouldn’t we focus the investment – both financial and time – into the running of the event? As far as I’m concerned, we’ve come out of the dark ages on the Circuit this year – we’ve finally given folk around the world the chance to really keep in touch with the rally. The radio service is fantastic, but what they say about a picture being worth a thousand words is exactly right. What the radio guys do is fantastic, truly fantastic, but what we did was bring those words to life.”
The response to the stream took even Willis by surprise.
“It was watched in more than 130 countries around the world,” he adds. “In total, there were more than two million minutes of Circuit of Ireland coverage – that’s 3.8 years of viewing watched over those two days. How good is that? And how good is that for Northern Ireland? People from so many countries saw the beautiful, stunning scenery we have on offer here for the first time. That’s got to be a winner. And the best bit is, we can see that people were genuinely using their mobile phones and their tablets to watch. Heck, we were even doing the same – I had it on my phone every time I wasn’t talking into the thing or in rally control or in a meeting. It was fantastic.”
The next step is undoubtedly to bring live pictures from the cars into the coverage, but the cost of that is vast. Immediately it means flying a helicopter and a plane over the rally’s footprint to capture and deliver the pictures. And that’s if you can get permission from the rights holder.
One thing is for sure, Willis is working on that already.
Yes, there were some missed links and the odd awkward silence, but that’s live television for you. And yes, the science has been simplified, but still it took the Circuit organisers to join the dots and make it happen. Good on them. ■
Live stream plugged Eurosport’s TV coverage
Circuit of Ireland pioneered the live streaming idea for 2016