If you want to know about how biathlon travels from the trails onto television, the first thing you need to know about is cable.
In Fort Kent, the site of Maine’s second biathlon World Cup in as many weeks, the stuff is everywhere.
It’s mostly black, but also orange, blue, white, red, green, and yellow. It snakes along the sides of the trails, hangs neatly coiled from racks, and explodes into massive, spaghetti-like snarls when it reaches the television compound, at the top of a steep hill overlooking the stadium here.
There’s some 19 miles of it in all, connecting 33 cameras to the two trailers used to produce the coverage. The longest run was 4,800 feet—“through conduits, culverts, underneath roads,” according to Rob Heinz, a utility technician in charge of the set-up.
From the feed of races, it’s tough to see the kind of work it takes to produce the television broadcast. Even on site, at the venue, it’s still hard to tell—by the time the races go off, the cables and cameras are hidden, the producers and technical staff blending into a swarm of volunteers.
But in fact, capturing the competitions and beaming them back across the Atlantic to Europe is a massive undertaking—one that demands more than 100 trained workers, including 54 who flew from here from Germany.
Heinz, a gruff, bulky, mohawked New Yorker, is a member of the crew brought in by Kent Gordis Productions, the firm contracted to televise the two biathlon World Cup weekends in northern Maine—the circuit’s first trip to the U.S. in seven years.
It takes a trained eye to distinguish the crew members from volunteers, in the hive of the stadium. For the most part, they move about unobtrusively. But look closely, and you can pick them out—they’re a little bigger, sport sweatshirts rather than Patagonia or North Face jackets, and are the only people on site who would dare light up a cigarette.
Yeah, it’s TV, but it’s not glamorous work—all that cable has to get carried, strung, and labeled by somebody.
“We build it all, and then we troubleshoot,” Heinz said. “Whatever they tell us to do, as long as the check clears.”
Biathlon may be small potatoes in the U.S., where the only way to see the sport is on the internet. But in Europe, it’s huge: nearly six million Germans watched a single broadcast of last week’s races in Presque Isle.
Work at the two Maine venues began all the way back on January 27th, when crew members for Gordis arrived.
They came with two production trucks rented from a Florida company—$12 million behemoths with top-of-the-line audio and video equipment—along with all that cable, and a massive, house-sized generator to power it all.
Between Fort Kent and Presque Isle, there was 150,000 feet of cable in total—a quantity that is essentially unprecedented, Heinz said, except for maybe the Super Bowl.
“Nothing even approaches this kind of numbers,” he said.
In fact, one of the main reasons that the Florida company, F+F Productions, got the contract to supply the equipment for the biathlon races was because they already owned so much cable–which they acquired by pulling it out of last year’s Olympic venues in Vancouver.
“That’s how they got this gig,” said Dave Crosson, who’s on site as one of two technical managers overseeing production for Gordis.
Because Germany is wild about biathlon, there are actually two separate television feeds that are broadcast from northern Maine—one for the German networks, and one for all the other countries that show the races, like Norway and Russia.
The German station, ZDF, gets more shots and interviews of German athletes, while the international audience sees a more generic show.
Gordis brought in its workers from the U.S. and Quebec; ZDF has its own biathlon production team, including journalists, cameramen, video mixers, and, crucially, its own espresso machine, housed in an editing trailer.
“That’s very important,” said Chris Kirdorf, a ZDF set manager. “You can’t drink the American coffee.”
That Bases Loaded Moment
Biathlon has exploded in popularity in Europe in the past decade, and one of the reasons is that it makes for great television.
Graphics—which are generated electronically by the timing system and targets—help viewers follow athletes while they’re out on course. And each trip to the shooting range provides 30 seconds of some of the most concentrated suspense in sports.
“In every competition, you have that bases loaded, bottom of the ninth, down-by-three-runs moment, when it’s make or break for the athlete on the firing line,” said Max Cobb, the CEO of the U.S. Biathlon Association (USBA). “Who stands on the podium comes down to that last, final shot…and then you still have a ski race to go after that.”
Ironically, biathlon isn’t televised at all in the U.S.—a bid to package the races in Maine and show them nationally fell through when some key USBA contacts retired, Cobb said.
But in Europe, the sport is one of the largest. The International Biathlon Union (IBU) calculates that its World Cup season in 2010 drew nearly 500 million total viewing sessions—and that’s not including the Olympics, which tallied 300 million more.
The rights for the broadcasting are sold by the IBU to the European Broadcast Union—a confederation of stations across the continent. Germany is a huge market, as evidenced by the 5.8 million from that country that saw the prime time mixed relay last weekend in Presque Isle, but Russia and Norway are, too.
Money from the rights makes up the bulk of the revenue for the IBU, according to Nicole Resch, its president.
The last four-year contract, from 2006 to 2010, was for 40 million euros ($55 million), according to numbers obtained by the Christian Science Monitor. Resch wouldn’t release the figures for the new one, from 2011 to 2014, but it’s reportedly 60 percent larger—nearly $90 million—according to one industry insider.
In addition to direct revenue from the rights, the exposure from television also helps the IBU attract its sponsors, which include BMW, beer producer Erdinger, and energy and heating companies.
The Test Event
The racing in Fort Kent happens down in the stadium and out on the trails, but the TV production happens in the two F+F trucks at the top of the hill.
Each one takes inputs from half the cameras, and the feeds are shared on a network to give each truck access to all 33 shots.
One truck is used for the international feed, and the other for the ZDF broadcast—which is directed by a lean, well-coiffed German named Andreas Lauterbach.
On the last day before the first race in Fort Kent, Lauterbach is in position at the middle of his truck’s main
console. To his right is the technical director, a heavyset, balding German with a dazzling array of different-colored buttons in front of him, which he uses to switch between cameras and effects at Lauterbach’s command.
To Lauterbach’s left is his spotter, a mustachioed older man with even less hair than the technical director. In front of all of them is a large wall of LCD screens, each of which is divided into different pictures. In total, there are 78 separate images, showing graphics, commercials, slow-motion relay clips, and the feeds from all 33 cameras.
On this day, last Wednesday, Lauterbach and his team are directing a TV test race, to make sure everything’s firing before the real competitions get underway.
Instead of the best biathletes in the world, the start list includes a mix of former and current second-tier skiers. There are two coaches from the Maine Winter Sports Center, Seth Hubbard and Will Sweetser, along with five other area athletes: Katrina Howe, Russell Currier, Melinda McAleese, Lauren Jacobs, and Meagan Toussaint.
As the screens display images of the athletes preparing in the start area, Lauterbach sits at his post in the darkened truck, giving directions.
“Get me some bib numbers.” “International again. Go to 13. Go to four.”
With the huge number of screens, it takes a while to figure out what’s going on. The live German feed for ZDF is being shown in a large picture on the upper lefthand side of the wall, while the international feed is directly adjacent, to the right.
The rest of the cameras show live shots from around the course, and in the stadium. Each has a number, and when Lauterbach wants to switch, he simply tells the technical director.
The athletes get going, and begin making their way around the course. On the massive climb just a few hundred
meters from the start, it’s clear they’re not the same caliber of skiers the announcers are used to seeing—the German commentary is being piped into the truck through a PA system—and there’s some good-natured chuckling.
As the racers approach the first checkpoint, each gets a split time. They’ve all been assigned names of elite biathletes: Hubbard is Belarussian Olympic medalist Darya Domracheva; Currier is Julian Eberhard, an Austrian.
Lauterbach’s job seems close to impossible—he somehow has to keep tabs on all the athletes and all the screens, then pick out the shots and graphics he wants from the nearly 80 images. He’s middle aged, wearing glasses, tight jeans, a soft shell, and a turtle-neck, and he seems at home in his chair in front of the console.
Lauterbach only gets agitated when the technical director doesn’t switch between cameras quickly enough, and even then, his sharpness seems more like a way to signal urgency than actual irritation.
“Zoom out. Follow—zoom in. And, wait for four. Go to four, and, graphic.”
On the first loop, it’s Sweetser drawing the attention—he even features in a slow-motion replay. Hubbard cleans his first shooting, and the announcers call it: “Darya Domracheva—suuuupaaah.” But gradually, it becomes clear that Currier, a U.S. National Team member in bib 77, has taken the lead. The spotter lets Lauterbach know when Currier enters each shot.
“Seventy-seven is coming in 27.”
For the most part, the German feed mirrors the international one, until Lauterbach cuts to a finish-line interview—actually one member of the ZDF crew talking to another.
The whole thing wraps up in roughly 40 minutes, from start to finish. Then, Lauterbach chats on an intercom with each of his cameramen, making sure all the shots are dialed in, unseemly cables hidden from view, and advertising banners getting their full exposure.
For the American and Canadian cameramen, it’s rare they’ll have an opportunity like this one, to shoot biathlon or cross-country skiing. The operators in the key positions are experienced Germans, but according to Crosson, the
technical manager, everyone else knows enough that the pictures heading over to Europe will still be decent.
“It’s a job, it’s a craft, it’s an art—they know how to do it,” he said. “They are professional enough to know what is a good shot—TV is basically seeing what other people did, and trying to make it better.”
The test race over, the television crew still has to get through four days and six races before they can even think about going home. They’re all staying in Presque Isle, an hour away, and consequently were contending with early-morning wake-ups and long days in single-digit temperatures.
They’ll remain in northern Maine for another day after the athletes, coaches, and spectators have departed—through early Tuesday morning, when Heinz said he’d be on a flight back to New York.
“Three weeks—missing the family, icy weather,” he said. “I get into LaGuardia at 9:40….I’ll be having lunch at home.”
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.