EXCLUSIVE to F1B: SPEED TV – Behind the Scenes Part 1

The United States of America views F1 with a jaundiced eye.  This has always been the case, and not without justification.  Between the USGP of 2005, the Euro-centric nature of the grand play and off-color comments of the theater’s master puppeteer, it’s no wonder there is such a cavernous distance between 300+ million people and the world’s most advanced form of motor sport.  NASCAR has assimilated a majority of the motor sport fans in America by pressing their marketing machine ever further into our homes, work spaces and lives.  It is the 800-pound gorilla that many Americans can’t ignore, or do so at their own peril, rendering them useless on Monday mornings at the water cooler.  It is all-consuming and home-grown, which makes its appeal even more deeply rooted and difficult to dislodge.
Like many besieged countries, there is a partisan group of militant fighters intent on liberating their country from the tyranny of NASCAR oppression.  These partisans comprise of a large group of F1 fans that are ardent in their love of the sport and fiercely loyal to the concept of open-wheel, European racing with a history as rich as any moonshiner-turned-oval-legend could ever be.  Their racing junta is fueled by their own version of Voice of America Radio, and it’s called Speed TV.  While Speed TV has its own penchant for NASCAR, there exists a band of professionals inside the operation sending Formula 1 signals to this partisan force and I heard the key message: “Blessent mon coeur d’une langueur monotone…” and I responded.
When Speed TV’s Steve Matchett invited me to visit and observe a live broadcast of the Singapore Grand Prix, I couldn’t resist––it was like inviting a moth to a bonfire. Yes, please! I was expecting a nice studio with a competent production crew, direction, talent and control room… I didn’t see that. What I saw instead was nothing short of miraculous.

Speed 2
The best way to describe my experience is piece by piece.  When you visit Speed TV, it’s a lot to take in and absorb in its context and overall scope–like trying to visit all of Disney World in a day.  When I think about my visit, I remember each place and person I encountered along the way.  I think of the insight gained by witnessing how everything affects the broadcast—each individual, each bit of technology, each second of the race.  It is an organization that adds their skills and talent to the collective cauldron, and when heated to the right temperature and stirred briskly, it produces the most amazing result: we call it the F1 broadcast in the United States of America on Speed TV.
The morning started early for me and even earlier for the Speed TV crew (crew call is at 4:30am).  I am unclear on just how much coffee it takes to properly wire these people but I doubt Juan Valdez will be out of work anytime soon.  I was met by Vice President of Production, Frank Wilson (after he found me aimlessly wandering around his parking lot near the Dish farm), and given a full tour of the facility.  Frank couldn’t have been more genuine and gracious as he explained the details of each area.  He was incredibly accommodating and seemed more concerned about what I needed than how my attendance may have been disrupting his morning.  I later realized that Frank was not just putting on a happy face for a random visitor, but this is who Frank truly is––a terrific guy with a passion for what he does and a professionalism laced with genuine kindness that permeates his character.  I’ve met a lot of producers in my day, but I haven’t met a lot of Franks.
While touring the facility, the “talent” (Steve Matchett, Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Will Buxton) were finishing up their Production meeting.  They covered notes, scripts and details of the broadcast along with timing issues and the usual elements of a broadcast (to my knowledge, no one mentioned how nice Will’s hair looked in all that Singapore humidity).  While they discussed their plan of attack, Frank and I continued the tour into the studio.  As we walked the halls, Frank introduced me to each person we met.  Every one of them was as pleasant and kind as Frank and I found myself wondering if they had all been secretly replaced by Folgers Crystals. This isn’t the usual production crew folks, this is a sort of “Welcome Center of North Carolina” with smiles, platitudes and humor all mixed into the most amazing covered dish anyone has ever brought to a picnic.
The Studio:

Speed 1

The studio is large and multi-functional, which means the arrangement, lighting and equipment can be changed to accommodate just about any potential production need Speed TV has.  It was dimly lit to promote better viewing of the wall of monitors on which the commentary team views the race.  The wall consisted of ten monitors containing broadcast feeds, and as I walked in, the F1 drivers parade was displayed on a few of them.  Live FOM world feed, highlight/video playback feed, timing & scoring, iPhone F1 app video, and a real-time statistics program among other feeds combined to give the wall a kind of liquid-crystal-heaven-on-a-wall vibe.  It must be said that from a video subject matter expert’s point of view, the resolution from each feed was excellent, as was the use of HD-SDI.
The Control Room:

The control room is both the brain and central nervous system of Speed TV.  It consists of a phalanx of monitors with the FOM world feed, the commercial integration channel from Los Angeles, the other live feeds Speed was preparing (in this case the NASCAR program in Dover) as well as live timing/scoring.  There were several rows of work area (think NASA desks in the control room sans Ron Howard’s freaky brother) with a production intercom system at each station.  No less than 20 people work diligently to bring us the F1 race but these aren’t just any 20 people.  I thought they would be standard issue broadcast people fashioned from polyester and Old Spice aftershave with a penchant for NASCAR and an unyielding sense of numbness about their job.  I couldn’t have been more wrong if I was Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone’s safe.
The productions staff are as knowledgeable about F1 as any ardent fan you can find (and you thought you knew a thing or two about racing… guffaw!).  They know the politics, nuances and actors in the F1 play.  They understand what is wheat and what is chaff.  They get the plot and were calling out events as they unfolded in real-time.  I was astounded at just how much they cared about the sport, how in tune they were and how efficient they are at digging under the rocks to find the story lines among the peat moss.  Very impressive indeed.  Every single one of them, man and woman alike, knew what they were looking for and what was important to every aspect of the series including race performance, mechanical issues, politics and general interest.  It was statistician Sean Kelly and producer Dan Shutte who caught the LED number 2 on Vettel’s steering wheel on his pit stop!

Join us tomorrow for the second part of the Speed TV – Behind the scenes part 2. We hope you enjoy the F1B Downshift interview podcast and story and would like to thank everyone at Speed TV for their kindness and consideration.

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