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New broadcast features that will accompany the return of the Premier League are not an attempt to “pretend” fans are present, but rather an effort to capture the “emotional triggers” of watching live sport, BT Sport’s COO Jamie Hindhaugh has told The Independent.
The English top flight resumes on 17 June after a three-month coronavirus-enforced break, with BT’s coverage beginning on 20 June as Watford host Leicester and Arsenal travel to Brighton.
With social distancing measures across the country preventing supporters from being allowed inside stadia, BT has launched two new features that the broadcaster hopes will convey some of the atmosphere of a typical matchday experience.
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First is their crowd noise option, which has been created using audio files from the Fifa video game series.
“The word there is ‘option’ for our audiences, because I think we’d all agree that everyone has a different opinion on whether it works for them or not,” Hindhaugh told The Independent.
“We’ve been working with the Premier League and EA Sports [developers of the Fifa video games] to make sure we get sounds stems that are specifically relevant to each of the teams playing, and also whether that team is home or away.
“Then we will have a dedicated sound engineer who is watching the game and mixing all those different options to follow the flow of the game.
“We’re not trying to pretend there are fans there, but I do believe sound really enhances the visuals, and what we want to do is have those emotional triggers when you hear the crowd get excited or celebrate – it makes you look up and you engage more.”
Hindhaugh admitted that he was sceptical of the feature initially and acknowledged that it will not be for everyone, though his opinion changed over time.
“I’m a complete convert, because I was always of the opinion that I want to experience the live event as it’s being played with nothing added, but actually watching live sport is about entertainment and emotion, and [the new feature] adds emotion. So I’ve been converted.”
The second new feature is the Watch Together function, which allows a viewer to watch a game with up to four friends. The split-screen feature operates with each viewer’s audio and video synced up to the same broadcast stream.
“The last thing I want is to see a friend celebrating a goal before it’s gone in [on my screen],” Hindhaugh said.
“Watch Together was an innovation we’ve been working on for a while now, but it was to come in next season. So we’ve brought forward a beta version; we don’t want to be encouraging people to get together to watch a game physically.
“So it’s got a different flavour than what we had in our previous plans, but it fits the bill very well.
“There is a recognition that sport is a social viewing experience, and you can’t always physically get to a game or meet up with your friends – you could be all over the UK. Sport is about coming together and that tribalism, that’s why we were working on [the feature] anyway.”
BT Sport will show 20 Premier League games over the course of the remainder of the season – that’s 12 more than they were set to air before the Covid-19 pandemic altered the landscape of sport in the country, as well as the way in which it is being broadcast.
While BT will be showing more matches than they previously expected, there is still some uncertainty about whether viewing figures will be higher or lower than usual for any individual game.
“That’s the million dollar question,” Hindhaugh said. “It’s a really hard one to answer.
“When the Bundesliga came back, our audiences for that first weekend were massive compared to normal. I think there is a huge anticipation for the Premier League.
“It’s another thing that helps us feel like we’re getting back to normal a bit, and I would expect our audiences to be maintained. It’s a hard one to forecast.
“The only thing I can say is that we’ve worked very hard to maintain our audience and subscribers.”
Hindhaugh said that he and his team were “grateful” for the early return of the Bundesliga at a time in which all broadcasters have struggled due to the lack of sport, while the briefness of WWE and UFC’s absences amid the coronavirus crisis was also convenient for BT, who air all three.
“We’ve struck a bit of luck with the stuff that’s come back – it all seems to have been in our stable,” Hindhaugh said.
BT also announced the addition of the Turkish Super Lig and Coppa Italia to their programming schedules this week.