JEFF FOULSER: Producing the Goods

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Without good talent you can’t achieve what you want to achieve as producers. The talent challenges us.
Jeff Foulser, Chairman of Sunset and Vine,
host broadcaster for major events including the Commonwealth and Paralympic games.

Since joining Sunset and Vine as executive producer in 1989, chairman Jeff Foulser has overseen the growth of an international independent sports production company which has been host broadcaster for major events including the Commonwealth and Paralympic games, has doubled in size and turnover in recent years but which is still producing highly successful branded content for clients including Gillette and Mobil.

The return of Gillette World Sport in January after a five year break from TV screens around the world was something of a landmark for Sunset and Vine, the independent sports production company which launched the iconic trailblazer for branded content back in the 1980s.

For while Gillette’s decision to dive back into the congested waters of sports programming might- somewhat romantically- be seen as Sunset and Vine returning to its roots, it is far more important that it provides a crystal clear reference point for how the company has developed in recent years. And my, how they’ve grown.

Back in the mid-1980s when Sunset and Vine founder Colin Frewin and former

and former West Nally man Bill Orde were melding their pot pouri of sports action and interviews to the Gillette brand, the company was taking the first meaningful steps on a journey which would see it transformed from a small but ambitious producer of corporate videos to major a player in sports media production in the UK and, increasingly, worldwide.

Today Sunset and Vine is thriving in a hugely competitive market. The company has doubled its revenues to around £50m ($75m) and its permanent staff to 160, spreading it wings as a host broadcaster of major events including the Paralympic Games and Commonwealth Games. Critically it has become the de facto production resource for BT Sport, the aggressively acquisitive new kid on the UK sports media block which, from next season, adds exclusive UEFA Champions League and Europa League content to a schedule which already includes Aviva Premiership Rugby and the Premier League.

For Sunset and Vine’s chairman Jeff Foulser it has been quite a journey. He joined the company in 1989 as executive producer from ITV Sport where his talent and enthusiasm had been recognised and nurtured by some of the most respected figures in the industry and

where he’s progressed to become, at 24, the youngest producer of its main football programme, The Big Match.

He became MD at Sunset and Vine in 1995 and since then has steered the ship through some choppy waters as well as navigating it to its current place in the sun. Foulser attributes a good deal of that success to a management philosophy which is based on allowing talent to flourish.

“I was helped enormously by people like Jimmy Hill and Brian Moore who saw something in me and gave me encouragement and opportunity and that’s something which I bring my current role. I get a lot of satisfaction at seeing young people developing careers here. I like to think that I am a good judge of people and I understand the need to identify talent. After that I make a point of not interfering. I’ve been a producer and know the job and, of course, I’ll give a view but I don’t want to be around the place second guessing members of the team”, he said.

Foulser might have made a living as a county cricketer in England but the need to get ‘ a proper job,’ coupled with a love of all sport took him to ITV and put him on a path from which there’s been no turning back.

It’s been a path with plenty of challenges to surmount and disappointments to get over – Foulser cites losing the production contract when racing switched from the BBC to Channel 4 as leaving a particularly bad taste – but the health of the company today indicates that it is continuing to move in the right direction, something which must delight owners Tinopolis, which gained Sunset and Vine through its acquisition of The Television Corporation back in 2006.

According to Foulser, Sunset and Vine‘s real growth spurt began when it was appointed to produce an all-night, six-time-a-week sports show for UK broadcaster Channel 5 which launched in 1979.

“It was called Live and Dangerous although while it was undoubtedly live is was rarely dangerous”, reflects Foulser.

“The show, which combined studio content with live action, including the NBA, from the USA, ran for 12 years and helped us win the channel’s European football contract as well”, he said.

But perhaps the most signifi8cant came in 1999 when Channel 4 acquired the rights to English Test Cricket and Sunset and Vine wont him production contract after what Jeff Foulser describes as ‘another bloody battle with IMG.’
Cricket’s move from the BBC to a commercial channel was greeted with dismay in some parts of Middle England where it was regarded as a sort of betrayal by those who felt only the BBC could do the job properly and that the intrusion of advertising would ruin not simply their enjoyment of the game but possibly their entire lives.

Yet the reality is that cricket was in need of a change and Foulser and his team embraced change with tremendous enthusiasm, bringing a fresh style of presentation and analysis to the sport and introducing enhancements including Hawkeye to which has since been ingrained into the fabric of not only cricket but tennis too.

“I spent the week before the first broadcast taking calls from journalists whose questions reflected the mood of some members of the public. I knew I wanted the sport to be more accessible and the coverage to be more entertaining but I had to tell them to simply wait and make their own minds up when they saw the coverage”, Foulser explained.

He did, however, have a secret weapon to hand in the form of the legendary Australian commentator and former Test player Richie Benaud who passed away earlier this year. Benaud was already respected and loved by British audiences and had built that affection over many years as one of the faces and voices of BBC cricket coverage.

“It was when Richie welcomed he viewers to that first morning’s coverage that I knew we would be OK. In fact Ritchie said it was the best experience of television that he had ever had”, he said.

The work on test cricket established Sunset and Vine’s credential for working collaboratively with rights owners and being creative and innovative wherever necessary to make the viewer experience more engaging and enjoyable. That desire was reflected in the company’s association with Hawkeye which was nurtured within Sunset and Vine after its young inventor, Paul Hawkins, quit his day-job at Siemens.

“What we had done with cricket helped us to win the BBC horse racing contract which included The Grand National, The Derby and Royal Ascot and I think that if you can cope with events like those you can handle more or less any major event”, Foulser explained.

But despite the sharp bend in the road when Channel 4 took the racing rights from the BBC and opted for rivals IMG, there was much to encourage Foulser. As co-producer with IMG Sunset and Vine not only won awards but changed the perceptions of an entire nation with their coverage for Channel 4 and worldwide viewers of the 2012 Paralympic Games from London a success which owed much to presentation and storytelling as well as the technical excellence of the output. “We worked hard to produce coverage which told the stories of the athletes and brought out their personalities”, said Foulser.

“That fed into the atmosphere which was created by 85,000 people in the stadium for athletics events. I can remember the 100 metres final when the crowd were chanting the name of the British Paralympian Johnny Peacock, somebody who most of them would never have heard of just a few weeks before, Peacock had to quieten the crowd with a gesture so that the runners could hear the starter – a fantastic moment for previously unknown to have the crowd at his fingertips like that”.

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Channel 4 has since appointed Sunset and Vine to handle its production from Rio at next year’s Paralympic Games.

In its role as host broadcaster of the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games Sunset and Vine was given I an opportunity to demonstrate its ability to operate on a different scale.

“It was our first multi-sport event and we spent two years working in Glasgow to deliver the Games through SVG TV which we set up with Global TV of Australia”, Foulser said.

“We had 1,600 accredited personnel in operating at games time to cover 178 sports from venues and as well as the marathon and road cycling events. It was a fantastic experience, Glasgow was a great place to work and we proved that if everybody is pulling in the same direction you can end up producing something really good. We were delighted that the Organising Committee publically thanked us for producing Olympic standard broadcasting on a Commonwealth Games budget”.

While the Commonwealth Games burnished the company’s reputation as a host broadcaster, events in the former International Broadcast Centre on what was London’s Olympic Park have had a truly seismic impact.

B T Sport launched its broadcast operation in secret and in a hurry. It came out of nowhere to snatch a package of Premier League rights, AVIVA Premiership rugby and much more and went into battle for the lucrative broadband business which has become the commercial focus for the telco and rivals Sky and Virgin Media.

“The issue they had was that while they had a plan and were able to acquire the rights they didn’t have the production infrastructure to make it all happen. We were still down in the dumps after losing horse racing which had become part of our lives but that sort of changed when we were able to persuade BT Sport that we were ideally placed to be their production partner”, Foulser reflects.

Today around half of Sunset and Vine staff work alongside BT‘s own personnel in Stratford to produce both live outside broadcast and a strand of innovative studio-based programming which has been designed to add value to the major properties on screen and differentiate the BT offering from its competitors. The contract is reported elsewhere to be worth £30 million a year but it is not only the impact on the balance sheet which has Foulser purring about the ‘wonderful experience’ of working with BT.

“Given where BT Sport came from what they have achieved is phenomenal. It has also been a steep learning curve for us helping get a lot of important rights on the air”.

“We had a few big things to get right on Day One. You only get one chance to get it right and if you hit the ground running and it is right people will leave you alone. If it is a mess on the first day it is very hard to get that back. Our first Premier League football match was quite twitchy. We were confident and we knew we had good people but it was.

but it was still a nervy time because it had to be right for them and for our own credibility”.

“It has also been a truly collaborative effort with us bringing out creative ideas to life, particularly in creating shows like Rugby Tonight has been a revelation. It has taken that sort of shoulder programming to a new level”.

Foulser is quick to pay tribute to the role of talent in making great sports TV.
“There is some fantastic talent a t BT rugby. They are bright, intelligent people who are good at what they do and are pushing the production team and the production team are pushing them to do it even better. Without good talent you can’t achieve what you want to achieve as producers”, he said.

“Compared with football rugby is inclusive and accessible. They know they are not the Premier League and they understand they need to publicise themselves and working with TV is a way of doing that. They need to have trust in the production people making that happen because TV can sometimes go bit too far although our guys know where the line is and you don’t go beyond that”.

“Different sports in different stages of their development. Rugby players, supporters and people who run clubs are different, they take lumps out of each other on the pitch but it is a friendlier environment”.

While TV sport today is an entirely different environment to that encountered by the fledgling Sunset and Vine, Foulser reflects on the change to the industry as a process of evolution rather than a series of individual revolutionary breakthroughs.

“Most of the change is part of an evolving story. Things get better and enable you to do more things rather than there being any great Eureka! Moments”, he said.

“Of course technology has changed things a lot and when I go out on OBs now it is incredible but the principles are the same. It is all about journalism and cutting to the right shot at the right time to tell the story and not imposing yourself on the audience. It is about reacting and being proactive at the same time and the technology has made it more immediate; when I started at ITV we only had one slow motion system and that could only record 32 seconds of pictures. Today everything is instant. It’s in the nature of producers and directors that they are always looking for something else and that drives the boffins (technicians) to develop new things”, he said.

“In general technology simply evolves. High Definition is great but 4K and 8K will change the way sport is covered because it gives much more clarity and you may not need as many cameras as you have at the moment because it is such an enriching experience. That can make production cheaper”.

“I was never a great believer in 3D – Sky were keen and the manufacturers were keen to make money from selling sets but it seemed a blatant commercialisation of something that nobody really wanted and if nobody wants it won’t work. That’s the thing. Does the end user want it and are they prepared to pay? HD is pretty good so the issue is the extent to which doubling the resolution will generate fresh demand”.

Naturally it is not only technology which is shaping the way the sports media sector operates and Foulser says that changes to the BBC Charter, which ensured that 25 per cent of programming went to the independent sector while a further 25 per cent was open to internal and external competition played a huge role in creating opportunities for independent sector.

“That set the example and other broadcaster’s saw the advantages of letting us take the overhead and use the competition in the independent sector to get the best price. It works for both sides but the fact is that there are not many independents with the scale and capability

capability to work on major projects”.

“Another important trend is that more sports are r looking to take control of their media product. That, coupled with the potential for other new broadcasters to arrive on the scene and start acquiring rights creates opportunities for companies like us which weren’t there five years ago”.

Opportunities naturally create competition but, says Foulser, while price is important in all negotiations, scale and the ability to deliver is critical.

“Our work on the Commonwealth Games made the point that there are no shortcuts. If someone comes in with a silly price they will just be dismissed because it is not feasible to deliver below a certain level. You need so much bandwidth to be able to put on a major event like that event like that and you just can’t do it on the cheap”.

Understanding and responding to the way consumer habits and expectations are changes is also key to success in a competitive business and creating digital content is an important part of the company’s service portfolio.

“Demand for digital content has changed our lives and is a prerequisite of every pitch we make”, Foulser said.

“People’s viewing habits are changing and kids don’[t know or care what channel something is on , they just find it and are most of the time are happy to look at them on their laptops. That said I still think the really big events are the ones people want to watch together and I don’t see that changing. People like shared experiences”.

“Second screen and satisfying the appetite for data is increasingly important. In the old days we’d say to the commentator talk about what is on screen – and while that’s still important you can now get away with putting more info on screen and letting it wash over the

audience so they can pick up what they want to pick up. That’s a product of the generation”.

While Jeff Foulser spends his days dealing with the demands of running an international company he, like most other leaders of in the sector remains a fan at heart and lists England’s Ashes winning final test victory over Australia in 2005 as both a personal and professional highlight.

“It was a great moment and we had an audience of 8 million. I think cricket has missed a trick by moving away from terrestrial”, he said.
“That day cricket stopped the country and we had a phenomenal sense of what we were delivering and how it was affecting people’s lives”.

There is, he says, another sporting moment he will always remember – watching Ali Beat Foreman from a facilities house in central London at 3am as pictures, which were not being shown live in the UK, came in from the States.

“That’s something which will stick with me for ever”, he said.

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