Friday 28 November 2014

Sky reaching for the stars to make us believe it's better

Big is beautiful as media giant pulls out all the stops to wow viewers

Aisling Crowe

Published 10/08/2014 | 02:30

Sky Sports News will relaunch on Tuesday morning

A DARKENED newsroom, illuminated only by a large bank of video screens, is bustling with activity. In the centre of it all are Sky Sports presenters John Paul Davis and Olivia Godfrey, the stars of this dress rehearsal. On Tuesday, Sky launches Sky Sports 5, the company's new, dedicated European football channel where viewers will find the Champions League and Ireland's Euro 2016 qualifiers.

But we are not here for that alone. This group of sports and technology journalists, and me, the sole Irish reporter and the only woman in the group, are here for the relaunch of Sky's flagship sports news service. From Tuesday it will be known as Sky Sports News HQ and the team has created a news hub which will be at the heart of the action. Last-minute preparations are being made as the sparkling new studio, complete with that 18 square-metre video screen prepares for its unveiling to the world at 6.0am on Tuesday.

Sky occupies a vast, sprawling campus near Twickenham in west London with eight buildings housing up to 8,000 employees. Construction work is ongoing on a new centre that will occupy 48,000sq ft. The sheer space and size Sky occupies is mind-boggling.

The cycle lanes are full of cyclists clad in Team Sky-branded jerseys and helmets, who I later discover are employees of the media giant commuting to work. There is an on-site bike shop where everything a cyclist could need and more is available. Sky contributes towards the purchase costs of bikes for employees. Cycling memorabilia decorates the building which houses Sky Sports as a Pinarello belonging to Tour de France champion Chris Froome dangles over the reception area and Bernie Eisel's bike adorns another wall.

The stars were nowhere to be seen. No hope of bumping into Jeff Stelling or Gary Neville, but reliable sources assured us that Jamie Redknapp was somewhere in the building. Apparently, the Soccer Saturday team do their homework on Friday and, for others around, concentrating on work is a test of their willpower as anecdotes are swapped, wild tales told and opinions on current stars and managerial troubles exchanged. Attempting to close minds and block out the gossip is no easy task.

Through the grapevine tantalising glimpses into the men behind the images were gleaned. Unsurprisingly, Gary Neville can be a bit of a crotchety character who works the producers hard in his research. The former Manchester United full-back approaches analysis in the same rigorous manner as he prepared for football and spends hours poring over footage. Before Jamie Carragher's arrival there were doubts about how he and Neville would gel on Monday Night Football but the duo are well-established now.

Buzzwords abounded too. Ultimate HD or 4K? Take your pick because they mean the same thing, and 5G broadband peppered the conversation over tea and pastries. The idea of 5G seemed preposterous when most of Ireland struggles by on inadequate 3G but it's not mythical.

Not content with rebranding the channel, Sky has decided to switch its place on the EPG (electronic programme guide) to reflect its new status. Sky Sports News HQ will now occupy pole position as the first channel in the sports section, moving up from 405 to 401. According to the PR girls and the technology journalists among the group, this won't cause any problems for viewers but if most families are like mine, I foretell some confusion in the next few weeks as people adjust to Sky Sports 1 now living on channel 402, and the domino effect it has on the rest of the stable.

Rugby fans will need to learn the numbers, and quickly, as Sky's rugby producer Jeremy Mann trumpeted their acquisition of Ireland's autumn international series, the Guinness Pro12 and the shared coverage of the European Rugby Champions Cup as gems in their busiest ever season. Despite the demise of the Heineken Cup, and the loss of exclusive rights, Sky's folk say they are relishing the competition.

Of course, the bitterness was probably sweetened by the allocation of matches in the first two rounds to the broadcasters. Who gets what has not been revealed to the public but Mann and Steve Smith, Sky Sport's director of production, couldn't suppress their grins, so they must have some choice morsels.

Bigger, brighter, better than ever - Sky's competing for our attention the only way it knows how.

Sunday Indo Sport

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