Alastair Waddington once ran the world’s biggest production company. But no matter how far he has moved up the industry hierarchy, he’s never lost the sense of excitement he discovered in his days as a producer at the BBC and BskyB and Sky or his passion for playing sports come alive by telling great stories.
It all came back to him in April during the IAAF World Relay Championships in Nassau, Bahamas, where Waddington was leading a 60-strong team to provide coverage to the world.
“Over the years, I spent a lot of time as a producer and, in Nassau, I had the chance to get back into the control room – something that hasn’t happened so much recently. And I can tell you it felt great!” he said.
It isn’t just his proximity to the coal face of sports TV which is exciting Waddington right now. In his new role as Director of Sport at London-based ITN Production he has what he sees as a remarkable opportunity to help build ‘a business within a business’ drawing on decades of experience to create an organisation which succeeds in the fast-changing, demanding and highly competitive production environment.
There are still many people who are surprised to learn that ITN (Independent Television News) is involved in sports production at all. While ITN is well established as a globally respected news brand, ITN Productions was set up in 2010 to build a diversified business drawing upon the company’s news heritage, focusing initially on documentaries and factual programming but building out other commercial offerings. “It was initially very small but today it has developed a commercial pillar which produces branded content and advertising for clients, a Digital Content business and now, sport which has become the fourth pillar,” Waddington explained.
“ITN’s Broadcast News division has built a fine reputation of 60 years and is known for its coverage of Big Occasions and news events. It produces multiple daily news programmes for three public service broadcasters from the same building. ITN Productions is a separate but joined-up business which has experienced double-digit growth in recent years.
“The business was a strong adjunct to the news operation and I was excited about the prospect of working in an environment where there was already an involvement in branded content and digital because the connection to sport is very clear,” he said.
ITN Productions was contracted by the English Football League (EFL) to produce and distribute coverage of its matches in 2015, and provides a broad range of output each week. The contract not only demonstrated the ability to win business from the established players in the marketplace but the capacity to find successful technical solutions for major projects. In the past two seasons ITN Productions has covered 3,500 EFL games.
“It is about finding a cost-effective technical solution and being able to turn-around the pictures quickly to make content available for clients whenever and in whatever format they need them,” Waddington explained.
“Our opportunity is to find the best ways of applying the infrastructure and resource we have here at Gray’s Inn Road (the central London headquarters of ITN) and applying them to the wider broadcast market.
“There is significant demand in the sports sector but, of course, there are major economic challenges with Outside Broadcasts. But the fact is we have a huge leg-up because of the facilities we have in terms of edit suites and high-speed digitised workflow.”
In a nutshell, the objective is to deliver the quality and speed of output demanded by clients and their audiences while minimising costs and, says Waddington, the World Relay Championships, working for the IAAF, provided an example of what can be achieved.
“We were able to deliver great coverage while taking few people with us because we were able to use Gray’s Inn Road as part of the production group,” Waddington explained.
“” We were able to produce all the social media, clips and streaming output from London which kept costs down while the quality of the output was, if anything, better than it had ever been.
“While there is a growing demand from rights owners to get material out there, many Federations have a real challenge. They don’t have big budgets but I have always believed that Cheap looks Cheap so we are always looking for ways to be smarter about the ways we do things to deliver quality output while keeping costs down. The fact is that the amount of production is growing and the economics and dynamics of the business are changing. There are many new distribution channels beyond standard television but you have to remember it costs to cover an event not matter how you choose to distribute it.” he said.
Waddington knows the industry inside out. He was co-founder of SNTV (Sports news TV), spent 15 years at IMG latterly as Executive Vice President, and, as IMG Media’s Chief Operating Officer, ran a global portfolio of production, distribution, facilities, archive and research businesses, working throughout Asia and Australasia, North and South America, Europe, and the Middle East. Waddington led negotiations for the 2006 Doha Asian Games, the largest outside broadcast contract ever awarded at the time. He also consulted to Channel 4 for the 2012 Paralympics and 2010 World Athletics Championships.
Today his IMG alma mater and other specialists such as Sunset & Vine operate in the same space but Waddington says he doesn’t see ITN Productions taking them on head-to-head on every occasion.
“We are about making the most of the facilities we have and trying to see production from the clients’ perspective,” he said.
“That means we will be targeted in our approach to what we pitch for. After all we are a small team and have to allocate resources accordingly.
“Maybe the market has gone a little stale over the years with the same successful players dominating. Whatever the reason we have has a good reception form all the people we have spoken to and continue to speak to and we ensure that we simply position ourselves as a work-for-hire production company which doesn’t get involved in other areas such as dealing rights. That keeps the relationships simpler.
Achieving the balance between cost, creativity and quality is, says Waddington, a matter of ‘just being smarter’ and he points to the IAAF World Relay Championships as an example of just what can be achieved.
“There is a tendency to thing that more coverage using more cameras has to be better. But the reality is that a lot of sports have established a tried and tested method and style of coverage that is not too often challenged,” he said.
“But there are other ways and it is possible to do a great job by taking a different focus. That requires people who really get the sport and know what is important and understand how best to tell the stories.
“When we covered the Relays, we didn’t just have a smaller team but actually used fewer cameras than in the past but one of our producers was a former international athlete whoa knew exactly what needed to be done to get the story across with the resources we had.
Olive TV in particular is a high-risk operation and people don’t want to take any risks and mess it up. That’s why coverage is so often formulaic. At the relays the client asked us to do new things and find new ways of producing coverage which really hadn’t changed in 30 years. That’s not a criticism – it’s just that if the same few people produce the coverage all the time it inevitably tends to look the same. We want to persuade people to do things differently so that it really stands out,” he says.
Waddington points to cricket and rugby as examples of how sports coverage has evolved and says that all sports should ‘keep looking at themselves ’to ensure they stay relevant to both their consumers / fans and, ultimately, the next generation of participants.