English Premier League football is more than a domestic obsession; it has an international following. UK radio station talkSPORT is tapping into this with a new internet service covering all this season's matches for a global audience, based on customised commentary equipment, streaming technology and specially written editing software.
Television has brought football massive audiences and huge amounts of money over the past 20 years but radio is still the way a great many fans catch their teams in action. Okay, so radio doesn't have pictures but it is free and UK sound broadcasters, notably BBC Radio 5 Live and commercial service talkSPORT, as well as local stations, strive to cover as much of the play at their visual counterparts.
TalkSPORT and 5 Live share the UK broadcast right to the Barclays Premier League but earlier this year the commercial broadcaster signed a four-year international audio broadcasting deal covering the next four seasons starting from this August.
Known as talkSPORT Live, this coverage is runs as a separate service from talkSPORT's UK analogue and digital broadcasts and is distributed over the internet and international broadcast partners. The contract with the Premier League involves live commentary of all matches, broadcast online in English, Spanish and Mandarin. To accommodate this talkSPORT has built an international broadcast facility at its headquarters. On a single day there can be up to six games being played simultaneously; commentary can come from a double booth, housing a commentator and summariser, for "A" matches featuring at least one of the big teams; or a single booth for a solo commentator. Technology manager Neil Sedley explains that more booths can be added to cope with up to 30 matches on the same day.
All commentary is done via the Premier League's official TV feed, and features clean effects at the ground to give atmosphere. New broadcast equipment was needed for the stand-alone service, and in March 2012 talkSPORT's senior station engineer Peter Ockelford approached Glensound Electronics to discuss commentary systems.
The operation is based on 32 commentary mixers; 25 three-channel models and six six-channel versions. Ockelford specified individual faders on the units, which Marc Wilson, sales and marketing manager at Glensound, says is unusual: "This is something we have not developed before on a commentary unit and it was great to have an opportunity to work through the requirements that Peter had for the project and develop three new units that meet what he wanted."
These discussions produced the analogue Fader 3 (three-channels) and Fader 6 (six-channels) commentary mixers, featuring Penny & Giles 60mm faders for level control by the operators and independent monitoring of two outside sources. Most games will be covered using Fader 3s but the Fader 6 gives the option for up to six participants in a programme. All mixers are connected to four custom-built GS-FW029 production talkback and monitor systems, which provide intercoms for 10 different Fader units along with selectable input monitoring of 12 inputs.
The outputs of the commentary systems are linked to internet streaming encoders. These are part of the online distribution service provided by digital agency Tibus, which is owned by the same media group as talkSPORT, UTV Media. "The feeds go to Tibus for final delivery over the web," explains Sedley. "They provide the appropriate technology for the various platforms, including MP3 for web listeners and AAC on iPhone and iPad."
As well as the live commentaries talkSPORT is broadcasting highlights programmes as part of the new service. This can involve a lot of goals and incidents, including red cards, on a single day so an efficient way of identifying events for the editor working on the round-up show was vital.
Nick Prater of broadcast software and technical support company NP Broadcast was brought in to design the system, known as Goals Logger. This feeds the output of the Glensound mixers into a Linux-based software capture computer. Each commentator has an Event Mark button in the booth, which they press to flag up a goal or dramatic moment. The stored events are later accessed using a web browser editing system, also designed by Prater. Generally three editors, one for each language, work on the highlight packages, using the editing software to top and tail the actuality.
"We could have put together something using existing bits of technology but there was nothing available that gave a single, unified timeline and workflow, which is what talkSPORT needed for this," comments Prater.
The new season is well underway and, with talkSPORT's online presence adding to the coverage on traditional radio as well as television, there really is no escaping the exploits of van Persie, Torres and Sir Alex.