The apocalypse will have to wait
Deadline day is deadly serious for Sky Sports News, as Tommy Conlon discovers on a visit to its busy studio
Published 04/09/2011 | 05:00
The new building cost over two hundred and thirty million pounds; the technology is luminous, the staff proficient, the system formidable.
It costs a fortune to operate. And on this day, all this money and all this talent is deployed to bring us the rolling news, as it happens, not on the whereabouts of Colonel Gaddafi, but of Craig Bellamy and a host of other footballing gypsies.
It's the Sky Sports News Channel. It's their big fat transfer deadline day. They've turned the volume up to 11. And that's before Jim White even takes to the stage.
In the world outside, a nuclear winter may be about to descend on the human race but if it's a choice between the apocalypse and Cameron Jerome's move to Stoke, the apocalypse will have to wait.
These guys have a job to do. The BBC had John Simpson at the gates of Tripoli as the rebels moved in, Sky Sports News had Gary Cotterill at the gates of Tottenham's training ground as Jermaine Jenas moved out.
And, if anything, Gary had the tougher gig, surrounded all day by a parcel of Spurs-supporting gurriers as he investigated the fate of Sebastien Bassong. In the end, Bassong stayed at White Hart Lane. But if the fearless Cotterill hadn't been there to shine a light on the Cameroon man's plight, he might well be taking orders now from Neil 'Muammar' Warnock at QPR.
It wasn't just Cotterill. SSN reporters had fanned out all across Britain last Wednesday to bring us the latest from football's financial frontline. The war correspondents might have their flak jackets and Kevlar helmets but it's easy to forget that these intrepid football reporters were also covering the movements of ruthless mercenaries too.
Back in the newsroom, SSN's awesome production machine was humming. The Sunday Independent had been invited to watch proceedings unfold. The newsroom itself is a Cape Canaveral of technology, logistics and human expertise. It is as long and as broad as a football pitch. It has 300 monitors, 79 desks and multiple dozens of personnel.
The Sky Sports News set, brightly lit and visually brash, is integrated into one corner of the newsroom. Sitting in the presenters' chairs for the afternoon shift are Simon Thomas and Georgie Thompson. On a day of many shocks -- Arteta for Arsenal! -- not the least of them happens when Georgie stands up. It is a veritable Shaun Wright-Phillips moment. The live broadcast is serviced by a production team seated in an arc below the presenters' desk. Another production team is preparing to take over the next shift while a third team is planning material for a few days down the line. Further down the room is the news desk with its editors, journalists and researchers.
"This," says Karen Willmington, "is the heart of the news-gathering operation. All (our) reporters and stringers outside of here phone information through to them. They check it, validate it and disseminate it to the production team who are on air at the moment."
The raw material assembled by the news desk has to be processed and made ready for consumption. The production team in the newsroom shapes it into digestible segments: trimming fat off the word count, measuring it for minutes and seconds, wrapping it in a colourful vacuum-pack of pictures and graphics. Duly assembled, each package is despatched electronically to the control room on the floor below the newsroom. They call it the Gallery and ironically it is here in this darkened bunker, rather than on the actual set upstairs, that the adrenaline of live television hangs like heat in the air.
Willmington is head of studio output for Sky Sports News. It is in the Gallery, she says, that the production becomes "operational". Every story or live link to a reporter "gets its final production tweaks before it becomes operational to air." There are three rows of production and operations staff all facing a wall of monitors -- "the monitor stack". All eyes are fixed on the monitors. In the middle of the front row sits the director. "The director is responsible for translating the producers' wishes to operational happening," says Willmington. "So all the operational staff -- the sound, the technical directors, lighting, cameras, play-out, autocue, graphics -- all their efforts are being co-ordinated by the director." The production team meanwhile is "manipulating the running order and controlling everything that's going directly to air."
In the row behind the director is the producer. Both are issuing a constant stream of instructions into microphones. The presenters upstairs are receiving continuous cues and prompts in their earpieces from the producer.
The pictures received at home are the result of a complex juggling act between the Gallery, the newsroom, the studio and the reporters scattered around Britain; live footage, library footage, graphics, stings and sound effects are all lined up as each story is placed in the queue. It is all choreographed in the service of immediate news. And all of it under the cosh of the ticking clock.
These guys are good; they are very good. Even if, at the end of the day, it amounts to telling us that David Ngog was seen leaving the Liverpool training ground carrying a black plastic bag. Or Jack Wilshere has tweeted that he's eating Jammie Dodgers while watching SSN's coverage at home. There's an audience out there for this sort of trivia, and there are serious pros supplying it.
The transfer window will close at 11.0pm. Shortly after 4.30 that afternoon Georgie Thompson declares, out of the blue, that "my computer has broken down!" Now, Sky's presenters are nothing if not smooth. They generally don't turn into gibbering wrecks if there's an on-air malfunction. And maybe one good reason is the professionalism of the support staff.
Quick as a flash, the producer in the Gallery is feeding a smart line into Simon Thomas's earpiece: "Six hours and 28 minutes to fix it!" Simon Thomas: "Six hours and 28 minutes to fix it!" Presumably there were some viewers at home thinking that that lad Simon is quick on the draw. He might well be. But on this occasion not quite as quick as the anonymous bloke downstairs.
As in other branches of the entertainment industry, the talent out front gets the glory, but the producers hold the power. They are the senior civil servants, lodged deep in the apparatus -- the permanent government. They call the shots.
All day they called the shots for presenters and reporters. "Si to ad libbers to Gary Cotterill with breaking news." "Rachel? Short and sweet Rachel as we're bashing around all the reporters." "Right guys, off the back of this we're going to Craig Slater at the Emirates who might have some big news. We're hearing that Mikel Arteta might be going to the Emirates." Craig Slater: "And I can reveal in the last few minutes that according to sources close to . . . Mikel Arteta might be moving to the Emirates." "Gary, we'll be coming over to you straight after Craig Slater. There won't be any follow-up questions, just do it all in one hit."
Meanwhile, up in make-up, the major domo, the big Kahuna, is getting airbrushed for the last shift, the final push, the great crescendo. Jim White is in the building. It's a thrill, says the Scotsman, a rollercoaster ride. He has his dander up; he is ready for the fray; he is girding his loins. He is Archie Gemmill and Archie MacPherson rolled into one (though just a tad more pasteurised). "We're taking the baton in the last one hundred metres," says Jim, "and we'll drive it home."
So stand back and let the man at it. All day this vast operation proceeded with a stunning efficiency. When the glitches came they were minor, and almost a relief to behold. Finally a clatter of swear words, as befits any self-respecting newsroom. A stressed producer, not unreasonably, momentarily loses the rag. We shall call him Tristram. He is trying to connect with Rob Dorset outside the Britannia Stadium.
"Rob, can you hear me?" Silence. "Rob, it's Tristram here mate, I need to speak to you if you can hear me." Silence. "Aw this is fucking ridiculous." "John, I need Rob back here as quickly as possible so as we can get him this news about Palacios." They fill a minute with other stuff. "Rob, it's Tristram here in the Gallery, can you hear me?" Silence. "I'm getting fucking sick of this now." Maybe Rob was on the phone to his missus. "Rob Dorset, it's Tristram here, can you hear me?" Maybe Rob had gone for a quick sherbet. "Ah for fuck's sake I'm going to explode here in a moment. Rob, can you hear me?" "Yeah, I can hear you." "Hallelujah!" And all is calm again.
Jim White was as good as his word too. Natalie Sawyer was his co-presenter and at the ad break before the 10.0 news, a producer had one final wheeze. Just to throw another log on the fire. "Right Jim, when Nat's reading her line, you turn around and take a piece of paper from Brigid, as if something's happening." Because sometimes, even on Transfer Deadline Day, a little soupcon of enhanced drama is needed. And, sure enough, while Sawyer was reading her lines, Brigid appeared on set to hand over papers containing the vital information.
Except that Brigid turned out to be a bloke. Which, on the day, was possibly the biggest transfer shock of them all.
Sunday Indo Sport