Aurora Media, to broadcast the unbroadcasteable
Aurora Media is characterized for being a broadcast agency that goes far beyond the established limits. They have specialized in guaranteeing the transmission of extreme sports content and regular sports also. This means that they dare to design, develop and implement broadcast production equipment in the most inaccessible environments on our planet: such as the cold Arctic Circle or the torrid desert of Saudi Arabia.
We talked to Séan Hughes, Director of Broadcast at Aurora Media, to share with us what has been the experience of their teams, as well as the infrastructure they have deployed in these remote locations. Here you will find the testimony of those who walk where no one dares to tread.
Photos copyright Super League Triathlon
What is Aurora Media and what does it specialize in?
Constantly evolving, Aurora is an internationally recognised, multi-award winning media agency specialising in the turnkey production and multi-platform broadcast of global sports properties; including Formula E, Extreme E, Super League Triathlon (SLT), SailGP and Nitro RX (among others).
We walk where others fear to tread and accept the challenge of producing live broadcasts from some of the most remote and technically difficult environments in the world.
What are the technical and human resources available to your customers?
There is a core team of really talented individuals that reside on staff overlooking all the different broadcast components —from client delivery through production, editorial, digital, technical, financial, etc.—. In addition, we draw on a very strong group of 3rd party external facility companies, considered as partners, to oversee more bespoke and specialised elements of the production; such us graphics, Outside Broadcast (OB) facilities and staff, global technical delivery, etc.
We capture, edit and produce content, within Aurora itself and remotely on-site, for rights holders and their associated brands and partners.
Looking back, what would you say has been the most challenging project you have worked on?
The nature of Extreme E, which highlights the problems of climate change in the most remote areas of the world, involves considerable technical challenges in the realization of the outside broadcast. From the Saudi Arabian desert to the first live broadcast from the Arctic Circle, Aurora has taken on the challenge of producing live OBs in the most technically inhospitable, yet visually stunning, areas of the world.
What solutions did you develop to overcome these challenges?
There was not only the technical challenge of producing the event (difficult enough in its own right) but also the logistics of producing an event of this magnitude, even to the extent of managing the human resource: getting to location, camping on-site, no amenities, freezing temperatures, etc. Every resource (technical or otherwise) had to be accounted for and brought to site and then —fitting with the ethos of Extreme E— had to be removed without leaving any ecological or climate damage. Everything had to be ‘as it was’ and all produced within a Carbon Neutral environment.
Indeed, supporting the Carbon Neutral pillars that is Extreme E, the added technical challenge was that the final transmission programmes were curated and produced via a remote production solution at NEP’s production Hub in London. The main race cut was captured on-site and delivered to London as well as, via different paths, in-car and mini cameras.
There was, of course, no WiFi or connectivity on-site in the Arctic Circle, so a technically delivery system had to be designed and implemented —xhausting the brain power of our internal and external technical partners—. A localised mesh network was built and set-up at various points around the track to capture footage across the (large) terrain of a race-track and this was then delivered to London. Afterwards, the content was augmented with graphics and commentary and, finally, broadcasted around the world.
It was arguably one of the most challenging OBs ever, but also a challenge in terms of human resources, weather, logistics, etc.
What equipment and manufacturers did you rely on to develop your broadcast strategy on that occasion?
Ostensibly, the remote hub brought in the live feeds (race cut and special cameras) from the event; as well as sporting graphics from Al Kamel systems (Barcelona, Spain) and more bespoke curated ‘special’ graphics from NEP Creative Animal (Hilversum, Netherlands). These were put together to produce the final programme, which was then broadcasted globally via traditional satellite paths.
NEP was the company in charge of the installations, both in terms of on-site capture and international dissemination through its remote production center in London.
Al Kamel Systems built and produced the sporting graphics and NEP (Creative Animal) produced the more specialist graphics overlaid over the live pictures. This included a fully interactive virtual map of the terrain that was produced after extensive drone tracking scanned and captured the landscape to reproduce —like for like, through the Unreal Gaming engine— the landscape for broadcast. This also featured the cars mapped via GPS and their positioning on the track at any one time, within this virtual composite world. There were also AR drones and chase drones to fully immerse the viewer in the action.
Speaking of your projects, are there any others that are particularly noteworthy to you in terms of the technology you implemented? What are the details?
We had the challenge of producing a Super League Triahtlon Arena Games as a remote broadcast production, balancing the synergy between (In Real Life) IRL and virtual Racing. An IRL swim was followed by cycling and running races on indoor bikes and treadmills. These were catpured by Zwift (in Edinburgh) and sent back to the OB truck where we put them together with live pictures of athletes (largely picture-in-picture) to create a narrative of elite athletes racing in real-time against each other, but represented as avatars in a virtual world.
Very happy to say the event won a SVG award for technical innovation, which is testament to the vision of SLT and the delivery via Aurora and its partners (EMG, Zwift & AE Graphics).
You are also in charge of the development of new sports products, is broadcast technology a determining factor in the design of these contents?
The actual broadcast technology required in the broadcast of new sports rights is not one of our primary considerations. The first ever live OB from the Arctic Circle (as well as from the desert of Saudi Arabia) demonstrates the fact that Aurora welcomes and accepts the challenge in the first instance —and then we look at how we deliver that challenge.
More and more disruptive sports are entering the market and we need to formulate and propose solutions that ensure that the content ambitions of rights holders are met by Aurora and our broadcast partners. In any case, we encourage world premieres, we encourage ambition and we encourage pushing the box as far as possible. It is much more than a challenge at first, but the rewards are equally satisfying for both Aurora and our rights holders, but also, and most importantly, for the public.
Looking back, how did the pandemic affect you?
It obviously accelerated the push towards remote production working. This was always going to happen — given the rightful concerns about sustainability and climate change. The pandemic helped push that agenda quicker than it may otherwise have happened. But this also speaks to modern sports rights holders so —despite the obvious challenges of the pandemic both personally and professionally— one could say it sped up the remote production process.
SLT Arena Games was largely thought up within a pandemic world —no crowds, virtual racing in an enclosed, Covid secure environment. This was a huge, award-winning, success which demonstrates that even in the most restrictive of times, there are solutions to ensure that great ideas and content can be delivered.
What workflows that you implemented at that time have remained in your way of working today?
Primarily, I would say remote production models. Remote productions more and more speak to the pillar of sustainability that are at the heart of any new sports IP rights holder.
As mentioned, I think these would have been implemented anyway but the pandemic most definitely sped up the process. There was always a degree of scepticism towards change —which would have slowed down the move to remote production workflow— but the pandemic ensured there was no other option but to adopt and embrace remote working. And it has proven to be a success for a number of reasons.
Regarding the sending of signals, have you developed any video signal communication over 5G frequencies?
We are constantly looking at every practical solution, whatever the delivery – traditional point to point satellites or, where this is not possible either technically or commercially, 5G mesh systems that allow delivery and transmission over secure and resilient IP networks.
What is the next big revolution in broadcasting?
A million dollar question! Invariably there is and will continue to be a move towards more sustainable methods of content production, delivery and broadcast as more and more productions become remote. Technically, this will become more possible as 5G resilience and redundancy improves and WiFi becomes a global mesh, supporting local economies around the world.
In addition I think camera systems —depending on the sport— will become more and more automated as tracking systems develop, which will allow the broadcast of more ‘minor’ sports where OB delivery costs are prohibitive; and the Cloud will also feature heavily given this.
Gaming will continue to grow and grow as younger demographics have more and more input into the sports broadcasting world which will increase the synergy between all tiers of sports rights and their gaming formats.
From an editorial point of view, I believe that sports should be adapted to different formats that target both young people and established audiences (think cricket and The Hundred for example). Also, all sports need to be coherent with a bespoke multi-platform digital strategy given the proliferation of digital sports rights. I also think social media interaction within and around sports will continue to grow and world feed output will change as more and more territories demand bespoke programmes rather than a ‘one size fits all’ world feed.
The demand for sport —particularly evident within the pandemic— has shown that it retains an incredible place as arguably the most dominant genre, particularly in an age of multiple choice and on-demand viewing. The appeal to advertisers and stakeholders of the demand for live sport means that the industry is looking both attractive and strong. Content is king. Live content is [more] king!
What is the future of Aurora Media?
Aurora continues to grow. We have a reputation for creative broadcast productions —as well as solutions— and welcome the challenge of sports IP rights holders looking to push boundaries. We will continue to innovate and produce content that stands above the norm. And we do this with production teams — and with the help of our partners and clients— that are all on the same page: makign innovative, ground-breaking productions that speak to modern audiences and formatted for multiple platforms and demographics.
We enjoy what we do, how we do it and with whom we do it. We ensure our rights holders get results, we get things done and are proud of the recognition we have achieved in the industry. And, again, we enjoy it at the same time. Not a bad way to earn a living…