How the Outdoor Life Network Brings the Tour de France to Viewers in North America

Last Friday I had the unique opportunity to speak with Peter Sumpf, Vice President of Network Operations for the Outdoor Life Network. He's in charge of the infrastructure that will transmit 2005 Tour de France programming to satellite and cable systems throughout the United States and Canada. I interviewed Peter over the phone while he was in his office at OLN in Stamford, Connecticut.

Prior to working at OLN, Peter worked for 16 years at ESPN at their headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut. This included a time when he was Director of ESPN International. He left ESPN and joined the company that owned OLN and SpeedVision in 1996. (Since then, OLN and SpeedVision have been acquired by Comcast and SpeedVision has been sold to Fox Broadcasting Company.)

Sumpf's job at OLN is to manage all of the technical facilities with the exception of Information Technology. This includes the production facility in South Norwalk, Connecticut. He also manages the relationship with providers such as Intelsat, OLN's satellite provider, and Crawford Communications, an Atlanta-based production contractor that provides OLN's post-production uplink to North American satellite and cable TV systems.

June and July are different for Peter and his co-workers because they really focus on what will be required to put the Tour de France on the air. The preparation includes a review of the successes and difficulties that occurred last year, and what they know will be coming up between now and the beginning of the Tour on July 2.

I remembered how much discussion there was of the differences between OLN's Tour de France broadcasts in 2003 and earlier and the Cyclism of 2004, so I asked Peter if the 2004 production was significantly different from previous years. He said the differences between the Cyclism and previous TdF broadcasts was not significant from a technical perspective. It had more to do with the degree to which OLN's resources were committed including marketing, as well as content and presentation issues that are based on the vision of the network.

Sumpf said that he would be working at OLN's production facility in South Norwalk, CT for most of the Tour de France, and that he planned to go over to Paris for the last couple of days of the race to meet with broadcast partners Intelsat, GlobeCast {a subsidiary of France Telecom}, and Woods Communications. These meetings generally take place every two years. OLN Executive Management {people like Gavin Harvey, President and CEO of OLN, Becky Ruthven, John West, and Wendy McCoy} go over to France for the last week of the Tour.

OLN offers video to other networks through a Video News Release. This is a highlight package that's produced on a daily basis during the Tour and transmitted via satellite at a pre-announced time. They assemble their VNR through a production technique called a "meltdown": all of the major highlights are found in a copy of the live broadcast and re-assembled. Announcement of the transmission of the VNR is made through a media advisory. Television organizations also have the option of creating their own highlights by recording the live broadcast and doing their own editing.

France Television and the Amaury Sports Organization produce a multi-destinational feed with video but without commentary. Peter said that OLN uses some of that feed and adds its own commentary from Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin, but it also adds:

I asked how much satellite time OLN had booked for the Tour? Sumpf said that for the Tour de France, OLN has leased its own transponder for an entire month on an Intelsat satellite. This allows them to go on the air at any time in order to cover breaking news. To make this easier, they also lease a transportable uplink so they can follow stories that don't occur at normal broadcast locations or within the timeframes that the Tour de France Arrive Village is setup. By contrast if OLN were producing a Bull Riding event, it would rent a satellite transponder for 4 to 5 hours.

I noticed that the current OLN Tour de France Schedule calls for three or four different daily replays of the stage, so I asked how they are produced? Peter said that each distinct replay will have its own editor and production team in charge of making sure that the key action and commentary is seen in each re-air.

He went on to say that the Prime Time Pre-Race Show which airs from 8:00 to 8:30pm Eastern Time is mainly assembled from video that is shot before the before the beginning of the stage each day. There may be a few segments shot and inserted after the fact depending on circumstances, but it would not be accurate to say that the Pre-Race Show is taped with the on-air folks already knowing the result of the stage.

I asked whether Peter felt that pro cycling lent itself to video on demand services that cable networks are marketing rather heavily at this time. Peter said that cycling is appropriate content for video on demand, that OLN produced VOD program for each stage of the Tour last year, and that they intend to produce more pro cycling VOD in the future. Whether the cable networks choose to offer pro cycling VOD and market it to their subscribers is up to them.

Finally, I asked whether Peter knew if the video streaming coverage of the Giro d'Italia was considered a success? He said that he hadn't discussed that with people on the business side of OLN, but that he had arranged for the service that made the feed available to viewers in North America.

I really appreciated Peter Sumpf's willingness to speak with me about how OLN will bring the Tour de France to our homes in 2005. I'd also like to thank Alison Eshelman of OLN for help in setting up the interview Frankie Andreu for suggesting some management people at OLN who might be able to provide the kind of information that Operation Gadget readers want.

Many of the ideas for questions that I asked Peter Sumpf came from readers of Operation Gadget. If you have questions that you've always wanted to ask the people who make sports happen behind the scenes, please email me at daiello [at] operationgadget.com.

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