Niclas Ericson Director of TV Division, FIFA
Football is still the most popular sport on Earth, and the World Cup, organized by FIFA, is a global event on par with just about any major sporting event. For FIFA, as the Cup has continued to grow and people’s desire to access matches in different formats and devices increases, the challenges on the TV side have multiplied. Niclas Ericson, director of FIFA’s TV Division, talks about 3-D, ultra-HD coverage and other challenges FIFA faces as it looks to deliver pioneering coverage of one of the most popular sporting events on Earth.
VIA SATELLITE: What are the major challenges now for FIFA TV?
Ericson: We decided quite some time ago in 2003 to build up this in-house media and TV expertise. Since 2003, we have rolled out an increased involvement in what happens with the broadcast rights; first the sales of our media rights and how things are produced, and ultimately what is delivered to the fans. We now have a TV division that has a sales and distribution department, FIFA Films, which handles historical footage. We also have a broadcaster servicing department that takes the major decisions related to the servicing of the contracts, the rights we have sold and services produced. There is also a fourth department for host broadcasting; however, we are outsourcing these services to an entity called HBS, but we retain control of budget and scope of production. We are integrating the various departments more and more. So, what we sell, we must produce, and what goes into the archive is also being produced. For the 2014 FIFA World Cup, FIFA has to secure the platform on which the production is placed. We need to make sure there is broadcast power for the host broadcaster and a telecommunication infrastructure that supports our transmissions in the host territory and beyond via international connectivity.
VIA SATELLITE: Does FIFA TV work directly with the satellite industry?
Ericson: The world feed is distributed over satellite for most FIFA events. I would say that the main FIFA World Cup event is one of the largest high bandwidth satellite single contribution users at the event time. In 2010, we directly contracted the world feed distribution. We also had interactions with companies like Eutelsat and other providers for our cinema 3-D distribution that we had in 2010. We are also very sensitive to satellite “overspill,” i.e. unencrypted transmissions which spills over to several territories. We get involved in the action monitoring of each broadcast. We have to make sure everything gets to the consumer in a smooth and secure way. We get in touch directly with the broadcasters and satellite operators regarding this aspect of a FIFA World Cup.
VIA SATELLITE: There was a lot of talk about ultra-HD at IBC last year. Could the next FIFA World Cup see the first ultra-HD broadcasts?
Ericson: It is clear that the big sporting events have been used for developing broadcast innovation. The relationship between the broadcast industry and football has been quite remarkable in history. This can go from everything for the use of color TV broadcasts to 3-D TV broadcasts in 2010. I think 2010 was the biggest coverage of any event at the time in 3-D. We had 25 matches covered in 3-D TV. Now, this year, we are seeing higher resolutions of HD, and of course we are reviewing what we can do and what we should do in 2014. In the context of HD, we are just finishing the restoration of our old official films, which are traditional films. The original quality is good, so they can be upscaled to HD. We are quite excited that we have the big stars from the past in full HD, which would have been impossible before.
VIA SATELLITE: The next World Cup is less than two years away. Can an ultra-HD project be done in such a short space of time?
Ericson: Sometimes the FIFA World Cup is a platform for new technologies. We can get business into these projects just because of the levels of interest in the event. For the 2010 3-D TV project, we had nine networks taking the 3-D TV feed with distribution across the world; we had 650 cinemas taking the final match and an official film project with Sony. That was also done in a very short time period. It was quite a costly project but the rewards were worth it. In 2014, there are already manufacturers that have the capacity to produce football matches in ultra-HD, and then it comes back to economics. SES has already been talking about satellite distribution at the Sony presentation at IBC last year. We will review formats and the various business cases, and then make a decision of what we can do. But it is very important that FIFA – for historical and heritage reasons – has the best quality of content produced from its flagship event, the FIFA World Cup. We have films from the past such as the 1960s and 1970s that now have very good resolution because we are able to digitize them. We are not ruling out ultra-HD coverage of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. However, it must make sense business-wise and we need to have the space and resources to do it. We have a very large 2-D HD project (the main production). Furthermore, we are looking at 3-D and ultra-HD as mentioned. Any project generates new requirements which are sometimes difficult to meet due to the overall pressure on the event’s resources. Our focus remains though to deliver the best possible experience to the football fans around the world.
VIA SATELLITE: OTT is another buzz term that is being used a lot recently. How does this impact FIFA?
Ericson: We have very exclusive rights agreements for our events and the media rights are strictly controlled. Furthermore, our main distribution is on main networks in each territory around the world. It is very complex to carve out certain rights agreements. However, we are working very hard at the moment in terms of more services and applications we can do with second screens, even if it goes via or together with the clients we have with the main TV rights. Broadcasters are trying to develop a ‘second’ coverage of the event, and we need to find solutions among the client base we have. We are looking to find a good second screen application, and further links to social media to increase our events’ coverage. We are working with our clients, sponsors and social media companies so that we can find new ways to deliver an experience to football fans.
VIA SATELLITE: Is it important for FIFA to be seen at the cutting edge of things here?
Ericson: We have discussed at great length what our priorities should be when covering an event. In 2010, we had a TV crew covering each participating team. That means 32 crews. That is a logistical challenge to bring all that footage back to the broadcast center and out to the clients. It is not only a new dimension to cover an event, but also generate a possible base for content servicing new applications including second screen, etc. So, is that more important to the football fan rather than new technology? We are trying to make sure our 2-D coverage is as broad and as good as it can possibly be. But in view of the rights fees we require and expectations of our broadcast clients, we are exploiting cutting edge broadcast technologies for the event. FIFA has been a platform for new technologies in the past. Our 3-D TV project was really a good push for Sony, as well as others in such a space.
VIA SATELLITE: 3-D TV was much hyped two years ago. Has it been a disappointment?
Ericson: No, I don’t think so. It will continue to evolve to a better 3-D TV experience as the technology develops – editorially and technically. We have media licensees who did not take the 3-D TV feed in 2010, but who have shown an interest for 2014 as they now have a 3-D TV channel. So, the demand for 3-D TV is there. The industry focus last year at IBC was more on 4K, 8K, etc. But, the rollout of 3-D TV will continue. We have questions such as: what should our focus be in terms of formats in 2014? To produce 25 matches in 3-D TV in South Africa was a challenge. Brazil is a larger country and that will create another set of challenges for the broadcast operations. However, as mentioned, we are reviewing the issue of additional formats (on top of the 2-D HD production) for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and will make announcements in due course. We are committed to delivering a great experience to fans around the world. But we must not forget that ultimately it is the football on the pitch which is the most important!