The 2014 edition of the legendary Isle of Man TT is underway, and MO has a man on the scene to give us insight into the competition held on wildly fast public roads on an island in the Irish Sea off the west coast of England. American fans of the TT are blessed with race coverage on the Velocity network beginning Saturday, May 31. Our correspondent, Andrew Capone, looks into how Velocity delivers same-day coverage to the colonies, and he’ll be delivering reportage during the event that runs through June 6. –Ed.
In my seven years of attending the Isle of Man TT, and marshaling the races on Bray Hill and other iconic spots on the 37-mile road course, I have often thought that what the TT riders do isn’t just hard, it is virtually impossible. Well, I’ve also been in the television business for 30 years, and while I won’t stretch to compare the athletic skills and courage of TV producers to those of the riders, the coverage of the TT, seen in the U.S. on Discovery’s Velocity network, is among the greatest presentations of any sporting event on earth. So, while I’m here on the Isle of Man, I thought it would be interesting to dig in to just how challenging it is to get the fantastic video and insightful coverage that have come to define the TT worldwide.
Mark Bunkle, Senior Production Manager of North One Television, the UK firm responsible for producing and distributing the TT broadcast, is up to his nose in it right now. “We’re covering the TT with a staff of 85 people, an array of 27 vehicles, a helicopter, and 60 on-course, on-board, hi-motion, and specialist cameras in over 100 distinct locations,” says Bunkle. “It is challenging enough, but then we must turn the races around for transmission on the same day – often with bad weather delays and only a few hours editing time.”
Coverage of the TT is not live to air but a series of rapid turnaround same-day highlights programs across practice and race weeks, a total of up to 15 episodes. This ‘near live’ approach presents considerable editorial, technical and logistical challenges. The TT circuit winds through towns, villages, open countryside and mountains. Races are run as a time trial, with bikes leaving the start line at 10-second intervals. Add to this speeds averaging over 130 mph, top speeds of over 200 mph, a field of up to 90 bikes, races of up to 227 miles in length, a chaotic scene in the pit lane, parc ferme and paddock to capture, and a race schedule dependent on changeable weather.
“Our primary source of pictures come from 12 course cameras and a helicopter camera,” notes Bunkle. “We also use two Super 35mm cinematic cameras for feature shoots. Purpose-built cameras are rigged on board the top bikes, and additional effects cameras are fitted to walls, lamp-posts and buried into curbs.”
North One’s TT coverage is noted for the remarkable ultra slo-mo images of bike frames and tires flexing, exhaust fumes igniting, fairings scraping the ground, and the intense concentration on riders faces as they approach the start line. A Hi-Speed camera captures images at up to 1,000 frames per second, allowing a view beyond what a human eye can perceive in real time.
The immensely complicated HD cameras on board the TT bikes are purpose built by North One’s Special Camera team for the TT coverage. They must withstand huge amounts of vibration, G-force and engine heat, with imaging sensitivity to cope with fast light changes from deep shadow under trees to glaring sunlight. Data capture from bikes, including speed, revs and braking statistics are synchronized to footage time-coding to offer a greater insight into the performance of the riders.
The intense coverage seems to be working, with Bunkle noting that global viewership has been climbing at a rate of 20% annually for the last five years. And based on the crowds pouring off the ferries and planes here on the Isle of Man for the 2014 TT, I can sense that the fantastic coverage is bringing in many new enthusiasts for this bucket-list event. (In my case, the TT is the bucket.)
U.S. motorcycle enthusiasts, who must hunt and peck for motorcycle racing and bike-themed programming that doesn’t focus on chopper builders cursing at each other, are also reaping the benefits. Velocity has increased TT programming, and, according to David Lee, Velocity’s Director of Production and Development, the network is taking it a step further this year with an even shorter turn-around, so the shows will air in prime time on the East Coast within a few hours of receiving the feed.
“Americans love a thrill, and that’s exactly what the Isle of Man delivers,” noted Lee. “The fact that the riders reach speeds close to 200 mph while navigating narrow, winding streets with stone walls and buildings flanking both sides – I don’t need to tell you that makes the ultimate reality TV.”
The TT and motorcycle racing in general, are important for Velocity, along with bike-themed shows like What’s in the Barn? and Café Racer. “We definitely feel that both motorcycles and racing are found in the DNA of our core viewers,” added Lee. “And the amazing production of the Isle of Man TT is at the center of that.”
TT coverage begins on Velocity on May 31st. Check your listings and set your DVRs. And stay tuned here on Motorcycle.com for more behind-the-scenes TT stories.