In 2009, Arsenal Media Group took the then-unusual step of moving their satellite TV channel to the web, creating one of the UK’s first IPTV-only club channels. Ten years on, we sat down with Senior Operations Manager John Dollin and Production Engineer Aliki Rodgers to discuss the growth of IPTV, how Dante has made their lives easier, and how they stay ahead in a “drastically moving” market…
How did Arsenal’s IPTV channel come to be?
John: In 2009 the rights to our old satellite channel became available, and the owner of the club at the time bought them. That was when it was decided that we wouldn’t be on satellite anymore, we’d enter online video, which was a lot more challenging back then. They set up a subscription-based service called Arsenal Player, which has since been made free access.
Why did they decide to take the leap and move from satellite to web?
John: It was a brave decision – this was back when Facebook was only three years old! But it was very difficult to grow an audience on satellite, and there are costs associated with delivering a satellite channel; everything from paying for bandwidth to deliver HD content to licensing costs. It was felt we could offer a similar experience online, and that we might be able to grow the audience there.
How much coverage do you produce for an average game?
Aliki: On match days there is quite a varied amount of content being created, both in live shows all the way to our coverage of the game, our own graphics and commentary.
John: Most days you’ll see there are three shows that come on: there’s one that goes over IPTV, which is accessible at Arsenal.com; there’s one that goes on the screens inside the stadium bowl itself; and then we’ve got our international distribution. We have some of the international rights to Arsenal games, and once the embargo’s finished – normally it’s a few hours after the game – we can then play the game out again as live, so [the international clients] record it down and it goes into their TV schedules.
Working on the video, audio, graphics and live components of three shows simultaneously must present some serious challenges. How do you think technology helps you meet those head on?
Aliki: We’ve got awide range of challenges that we encounter on a daily basis. We’re quite a small operations support team, and managing a wide range of systems and users with different requirements means that our engineers need to specialise in multiple areas and react to the unknown on a daily basis. Being a small team does allow us to respond fairly quickly, but again you’re limited by human resource. This is where technology does come in massively to assist us, both from simple things like remote access to management tools, to adding in various elements of redundancy to avoid or mitigate user error, which then reduces how much time we need to support users.
John: We’re like a mini Sky Sports here. We have a TV studio, we broadcast internationally over satellite, we’ve got websites we’re updating, we’ve got storage, we’ve got archive, we’ve got sound booths. So we can touch on all the points that Sky Sports probably would, but without the resources and without the budget. But our ambitions are no less, and we try to deliver the same level of quality that they do, so we need to box really clever. When we invest in technology and when we work with suppliers, we need to make sure that we’re getting the most out of them, and that any tools that we’re using we can stretch to try and cover more than one solution or one problem.
How has the setup at Arsenal changed since you both started?
Aliki: It’s drastically changed. When I started freelancing here in 2010/11, we were working in a live studio with a hard set with 13 people operating a live production of our TV show.
John: Everything was manually patched.
Aliki: Everythingwas manual, you were constantly unplugging, patching things over. Compared to now, we’re often running a show with two or three people in a VR studio. Bringing in automation and bringing in systems which simplify and allow you to control things in a far easier way has been a huge benefit for us, especially as we work on multiple sites. Often, you’d need to run over to the stadium to change a patch to change something in the office.
John: The Internet of Things is changing everything because what that means is that everything’s connected. So suddenly now we’ve got systems – if you take video routing, back in the day that would be someone’s job. Now we have video routers where you can do it in a web interface, so you don’t even have to be sitting near where that router’s located, in dungeon down where they shovel the coal. You can come and sit on top deck now and enjoy the sunshine.
One of your major changes has been rolling out a Dante audio over IP solution.
Aliki: We came from a place where we had linear, manual audio recording facilities tied to individual edit suites. It was pretty cumbersome and clunky. There wasn’t a purpose-built space for the recording. There were definite differences between each system and you had to know the quirks of each space to make it work, so there was a huge variance in quality depending on who recorded material, where it was recorded and which edit suite it was edited in.
What was it about audio over IP offered that made you go down that route?
Aliki:Dante brought in a dynamic routing ability, meaning we can take audio sources from any of our recording points and send them to any destination on the network. That meant we could build a dedicated voiceover studio that was connected to all three of our edit suites, so any editor can, at any time, choose to add a voiceover simply by clicking a couple of buttons on the Dante setup. We’ve also been able to add talkback, which you think of as standard, but our old system didn’t have it.
How did you find the transition? Was it a case of gutting your studio and starting from scratch?
Aliki: I’ve found scalability to be one of Dante’s strongest suits. We rolled out our Dante in several phases, starting with a very small point-to-point system. Eventually we added in all our edit suites, then rolled out DSP audio processing to automate a lot of what’s going on for the editors, and we have plans to work with Jigsaw24 to roll out Dante across more of our infrastructure. Audio over IP is becoming far more mainstream and it’s only going to become more common, so providing interfaces for external [broadcasters] to come in and connect up to our facilities is something that we’re looking at.
Did you have to do any retraining after the IP transition?
John: I wouldn’t say retraining. For most of the staff it’s made their job simpler.
Was there a lot of support for the switch, or did you have to win stakeholders over?
John:We had what we called our city plan, which was the vision of where we ultimately wanted to get. Now, if you sit down and start explaining that city plan to your stakeholders, it’s quite scary, right? Because it feels like it’s quite far away and it sounds like a lot of money. So we didn’t do that. What we do show them was a street, or a little bit of the town that they could understand.
Between the audio, the editing suites and the infrastructure, this overhaul seems like a pretty long term project.
John: I’ve been here for five years or so and we’ve been working on it for most of that time. We’ve been slowly changing bits of our platform as we’ve gone, to [the point where] now I absolutely know if you went back five or six years ago people wouldn’t recognise anything from that was there originally, it’s changed so dramatically.
Are you modifying the city plan as you go along?
Aliki: Yes, you have to be flexible and keep your eye on what is changing. It’s such a drastically moving industry I think if you don’t change, you get left out quite quickly. With our Dante plan, there’s probably another year or two of phases left in it before we’ve achieved the overall goal. And it’s been fantastic working with Jigsaw24 on that. We first put together the plan 18 months ago, and it’s a massively evolving technology so we’ve stayed in contact and kept abreast of what’s changing and whether things can be improved on the original plan. The pragmatism that’s provided has been really useful.
Do you have any advice for someone beginning a project on a similar scale?
John:Understand your users first. Make sure you really do. Before we started changing things, we went in and watched how they worked, tried to understand how they worked, and then looked at systems that didn’t stop them doing what they wanted to, but actually helped them along that journey somewhat. The other thing is, try not to solve too many things at once. Just focus on one or two major problems a season. And always just double your storage!
Do you think there are challenges unique to sports broadcast versus any other kind of live event?
John: I think our immediate reaction was yeah, we’re definitely unique. And then when we thought about it, we’re probably not [that far removed from] 24/7 TV channels: they know the pressure you’re under to keep stuff on air, they have long hours, they have the challenges of running out of space and storage and having users and edit suites that you need to keep up and running. I think the only thing I can say is we are a football club. The heart of what we do is play football. So my team could do the best job in the world, they could do the best content, do the best job of getting it delivered and out there, and we could still lose. And the stuff that we do could still bomb, because we lost that match. I don’t know many other businesses where if you’re at the top of your game and you’re doing really well and you hit the markers that you have set yourself, it can still feel like a failure.
Being a team with limited resources, are you always keen to try new technologies out, or do you like to wait until a solution’s tried and tested before you install it?
Aliki: Depending on the circumstances, we do try and get in fairly early with suppliers. Often the tools that we’re looking at may not be purpose built for sports, and if you can get in early with developers, you can potentially drive the development in a way that you may like.
John: We don’t tend to work with the biggest companies because we can’t drive their agenda, and don’t work with the smallest because we still need a robust and reliable way of delivering our content. So it’s finding those people in between who are upcoming, and then getting in early. And the good thing about working with us as a club is we touch upon a lot of points – we’re doing live production, audio, graphics, we need to archive. So companies developing a new solution learn a lot from working with us, and we have a huge brand that other potential customers will pay attention to.
What do you think is next for Arsenal Media Group and the field overall?
Aliki: It’s a massively changing industry that is very much dependent on the technology around it. In much the same way as Dante is replacing the audio world’s reliance on many cables and manual patching with IP delivery, there are a lot of companies looking at alternatives to traditional satellite broadcast. While very reliable and well-established, satellite can be expensive. We’re able to send our content up to two satellites and hit most of Europe and most of Asia, but when we have more geographically separate users – for example we had a taker on a small island in the Caribbean – you’re using a third satellite and creating a huge footprint for a single taker. IP would very easily allow you to send this content to an individual user, still providing security but without paying for something which is providing a larger footprint than you need.
When you look at new tech, are you looking other clubs? Is there a shadowy cabal of sports broadcast engineers sharing ideas?
Aliki: We have good relationships with the other teams, but I think in the industry we work in, a lot of the technology we look at isn’t football-specific. Often working with suppliers themselves and seeing what they’re developing is where we can gain inspiration for solving problems that we have, and maybe problems we hadn’t even identified yet but which become clear when newly developed technology comes out. Being able to work with the suppliers that have given you that idea and being able to drive [the technology] to where you want it to go helps you massively.
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