By the time the winning team is celebrating with the trophy at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on July 15, more or less half the people on the planet will have watched some of the action from World Cup 2018.
That’s 3.8 billion people who will have watched on TV, online or mobile and the chances are the content they devoured was created by Host Broadcast Services, the organisation set up to cut the jewel in Fifa’s crown.
But, says its founder, only a handful of people know or care who HBS are. “That’s the way it should be. We are a white label service working for FIFA,” acknowledges Francis Tellier.
The sports broadcast veteran was called upon to launch HBS to provide a specialist host broadcast services for the 2002 World Cup in Japan and Korea – giving Fifa control over the quality, look and feel which wouldn’t have been possible under the previous system, of using the major national broadcasters to fulfil the role.
That it has come so far is remarkable given the scepticism which surrounded its inception.
“Most industry experts said we would fail because we had to produce in Japan and Korea where there were issues with unions and the local broadcasters. Originally the Japanese broadcasters wanted to handle production in return for getting the rights for nothing. They said it would be impossible for a foreign company to produce there,” Tellier says.
Three World Cups later Tellier and the HBS team not only remain in place but have evolved to become a mainstay of the industry, servicing a range of events including the Asian Games and rugby World Cup as well as Fifa competitions.
Tellier started his broadcast career in radio in France and was head of operations for French national radio during Spain ’82, where he learned that managing major broadcast operations was not simply a matter of meeting the technical challenges.
“It’s about the people as well and in Spain we had to deal with a situation where employees threatened to stop working if their per diems [daily expense allowances] weren’t increased,” he says.
“The experience taught me a lot. In fact, with radio you are given responsibilities when you are quite young…perhaps sometimes when you are too young. It’s fascinating because you learn to do a lot without much money. It’s about going ahead and doing things and then learning from your mistakes.”
Tellier, now 65 and preparing to step down from his current role at HBS, says that although he has built a business by servicing the biggest football property on the planet, he doesn’t consider himself a soccer fan.
“I enjoy football but most of us in broadcasting are not too emotional about it and it’s much better that way. Working in a multi-national environment you can imagine the teasing which goes on, but the English seem to be the only ones who take it super seriously – you just can’t kid with them!
“When I was in radio I would often leave the studio not knowing what had actually happened in the game because I was so deeply involved in the technical production. I guess we were working ‘below the water’ and didn’t need to be as knowledgeable as the producers and journalists.”
He remained in France overseeing radio operations during Mexico ‘86, a tournament which earned the reputation of ‘the Chernobyl of broadcasting’ because of the myriad technical problems that were faced.
“It was so bad there were times when we would be getting commentary in the wrong language. It wasn’t until Manolo Romero – who went on to head the Olympic broadcast services – got involved that things got better. He took matters into his own hands and, with the help of two of his technicians, fixed the problems overnight.”
Before the emergence of the cash-rich but short-lived super agencies, rights to most major international sports events were almost automatically acquired by continental broadcast unions and the convention was that the host country’s national broadcaster would assume host broadcast duties.
After France was awarded the 1998 tournament, Tellier became the head of the host broadcast operation almost by accident and found himself on the steepest of learning curves.
“At the outset we had a chairman who was meant to play an operational role but, after six months or so, he got another job and said he could only come in on Friday afternoons and that it was down to me to manage and make it happen,” Tellier remembers.
“He was actually very helpful and supportive, but the fact is that when I started the project I was still very much an engineer.
“To start with we were working on a shoestring because money was tight and there was no big TV department at Fifa to work with. Instead we had a direct relationship with Sepp Blatter, Keith Cooper (Fifa’s head of communications) and the Local Organising Committee. It really was a different century!”
Production requirements were very different as well.
“We only produced the match itself from 10 minutes ahead of kick-off until three minutes after the game and, of course, we were responsible for creating the international broadcast centre to support the broadcasters from around the world. All in all it was a far more limited task.
“There were problems along the way of course, like the graphics provider going bankrupt three weeks before the tournament and us having to visit each of their operators and persuade them to continue working by assuring them that we would ensure they were paid.
“But the broadcasters could see that we were customer-focussed and that the atmosphere was different and more co-operative than in the past. That allowed us to build good relationships,” he says.
France ‘98 was the final World Cup under the auspices of the ‘old guard’ of broadcast unions after the EBU – still basking in its previous three event deal – refused to meet Fifa’s new value expectations and the ISL agency – Fifa’s media rights distributor – began to supercharge value by selling to individual territories. It also meant that old host broadcaster arrangements could be revised.
“The rights had gone to ISL and Kirsch but those guys didn’t really understand the technical part of the broadcast operation. They visited the IBC in France and, I think, it scared them a little,” Tellier explained.
“Stephen Dixon of ISL contacted me after ’98 and told me not to accept any job until we had a chance to talk. The result was a consultancy project which ultimately led to the incorporation of HBS in 1999, in principle just to handle Japan and Korea in ’02.
The result, as they say, is history. HBS not only delivered in 2002 but went on build a broader-based business to serve the broadcasters desperate to keep abreast of the way that technology was changing expectation of them both in television and online.
“It has been a questions of building layer after layer on the foundations that we created in Japan and Korea. It was about new methods of production, new technologies and listening to broadcasters all the time,” Tellier explains.
Technical milestones have included Germany ‘06 and the first World Cup delivered high definition from a single production, something that only happened after Tellier had campaigned hard to convince the powers that be that it was not only feasible but necessary.
“There had been HD before but it had always been from a separate production which meant that the actual production, in terms of number of cameras and shots, wasn’t as good as standard definition.
“To give you an idea what we were up against I was called into a board meeting in Switzerland, where they still only had 16 x 9 format screens and they weren’t convinced until the chairman insisted that, as we had delivered in ’02, we should be allowed to get on with it. I think they were worried people would miss goals because they were scored outside the frame!”
In 2010 what was intended to be a small-scale experiment with 3D turned into a far bigger operation after partners Sony and ESPN demanded coverage of 27 matches.
“It worked reasonably well but whenever you have a second production it suffers. With 3D we had fewer cameras and although some effects were spectacular, overall the production was inferior. Now, as we look to 2018 and the introduction of Ultra HD and HDR it will be a single production. That way nobody will be able to say they didn’t get the best service.”
While the World Cup has remained at the forefront of technological innovation, HBS has also responded to demands from broadcasters for a wider range of non-match content.
“In the beginning few people took the service but over the years it became really popular. We have electronic news-gathering crews embedded with each team and others shooting stories about the host country and the fans and in many ways, it has changed the nature of HBS. Initially it was an engineering and venue-operations business but now the biggest team is production and post-production and developing multi-media products including the white label turnkey apps which are then branded by individual broadcasters.
“We have such a variety of customers and provide something for all of them. There are some we never see, and they are just happy to take the world feed with English commentary. For them we now produce a complete show starting an hour before the game and finishing an hour afterwards. Others take everything we offer on multi-feed.”
“The range of services we provide now also helps reduce the footprint of the operation. Some broadcasters opt to keep their main studio at home and produce remotely as it lets them send fewer people and reduce costs. For others we construct studios offering iconic views of the host city and country.”
In Russia these will be on Red Square in Moscow with views of Saint Basil’s Cathedral and the Kremlin.