With the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany now less than a year away, the FIFA Confederations Cup has been serving as the best possible dress rehearsal and not just for the teams and organisers.
Much like FIFA, the Local Organising Committee, volunteers and everyone else associated with the event, Host Broadcast Services (HBS) has been testing out its technology to ensure that Germany 2006 is the greatest spectacle the world has ever seen. High Definition TV, Dolby Surround Sound and individual cameras following the star performers are just some of the innovations in store for households around the world.
Every four years, FIFA World Cup fever grips the planet and the already staggering television audience figures seen in the past are set to be smashed in 12 months' time. In fact, an accumulated audience of no less than 32 billion spectators is expected to tune in to the 64 matches that will make up Germany 2006.
With such a worldwide demand, preparation is clearly everything. And that task falls to HBS, a company created in 1999 after the 1998 finals in France, and now the exclusive producer and distributor of images for all FIFA competitions. Frenchman Francis Tellier is the head of HBS and he is keeping relaxed about the immense task on the horizon.
"For the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany, we're going to have a Dream Team," he says. Indeed, the best directors from Germany, England and France have been recruited, and they themselves will pick the best technicians to make up their teams.
"We're going to provide a top-quality programme," promises Englishman Peter Angell, director of production at HBS. Like Tellier, Angell can call on his impressive past experience in the field, with the 2002 finals in Korea/Japan and 2003 FIFA Women's World Cup USA having proved unqualified successes.
High Definition TV and Dolby Surround Sound
"Continuity and innovation" are the bywords for Tellier, and three innovations in particular will see the light of day during Germany 2006. High Definition TV is the first of them, with the 16:9 Widescreen format originally conceived for watching films due to make the transition to the world of football.
After an initial decision was made as the curtain fell on Korea/Japan in 2002, 18 months of development led to HBS giving the project the go-ahead in December 2003. "It was at Frankfurt during the draw for the Germany 2006 qualifiers that we knew for sure that High Definition would be possible," explained Angell. The tournament will, of course, be transmitted in the standard 4:3 format as well, for viewers not equipped with widescreen televisions.
And to give the viewing public the sensation of being right there in the stadium itself, HBS has opted to use Dolby Surround Sound. Every cheer from the crowd will be captured by 30 microphones installed in all 12 of the FIFA World Cup venues, before being mixed by sound engineers and pumped through speakers in homes across the planet, with viewers owning 'Home Cinema' systems set to hear the benefits especially. The first tests have been conducted during the FIFA Confederations Cup and have proved absolutely conclusive the results are astounding.
This month's tournament has also allowed HBS to perfect a few techniques that were first introduced in 2002. In addition to polishing its international signal, the World Feed, HBS will be offering a number of packages made possible by placing 25 cameras around the ground (as opposed to 20 in 2002), from the touchline to the very tops of the stands.
Homing in on the tactical angle, and offering the action in and around the two team benches, they will keep viewers up to date with every aspect of the game as it evolves. And after two visits to the 12 FIFA World Cup venues as well as their experiences during Germany 2005, HBS have already decided exactly where they will place their cameras next year.
While the idea of different camera angles was experimented with in 2002, one brand new offering will be the 'Player Cam'. Three or four players from each side will be filmed for periods of around ten minutes, with the players in question agreed upon beforehand in consultation with the respective broadcasters of the two countries involved.
Reflecting the global philosophy behind the event, no one will be left out. Any broadcasters unable to send their own production teams to Germany will be able, as in 2002, to subscribe to a turn-key programming solution, the EBIF Show. The programme will start 30 minutes before each game and finish 30 minutes after the final whistle, featuring the warm-ups, the match itself and player interviews. Extremely flexible, it is a service that can be adapted to meet the needs of each individual broadcaster.
The last innovation HBS is promising is a totally unprecedented video database. Each match will be indexed in its entirety, and as it happens, by an armada of experienced technicians at the International Broadcast Centre (IBC) in Munich. They will break down the play so that images of any individual action can be used a minute later by the broadcasters who have signed up to the service. And there ought to be no shortage of takers too, after the service won over everyone who tried it at the FIFA Confederations Cup. All that remains now is to repeat that success over the 64 games of the next FIFA World Cup.
Naturally, all these technologies bring with them huge logistical demands. Once again, however, that does not seem to worry anyone at HBS. "That's the great advantage of the FIFA Confederations Cup," enthuses Angell. "Without this competition, we would have had to take great risks at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany. Our plans look good, though. I don't think we'll have to make too many changes to them."
With HBS ready, football lovers the world over can sit back and start looking forward to the greatest televised sporting event of the 21st century.