It is a process that billions around the world have taken for granted every day in recent weeks – turning on the television to watch the latest FIFA World Cup™ encounter unfold before them. It is an act so simple that it belies the months of hard work and technical expertise necessary to get to that point. The focus of it is the International Broadcast Centre, nestling unassumingly in the shadow of Soccer City, and home to a plethora of media organisations from across the globe. The list of its inhabitants reads like a 'Who's who' of the broadcasting world, with heavyweights such as the BBC, ESPN, ZDF and Fox Sports all co-ordinating their tournament output from here.
"We usually say that there are 179 of our clients that are actually present in South Africa," revealed Niclas Ericson, FIFA TV director. "Not all of them have studios here but a wide range of television companies are here. I think the biggest unilateral area is the ZDF/ARD studio, which is 2,500m², it is absolutely enormous. This is a very important venue for the World Cup," explained Ericson. "This is where all the images from the different competition venues are coming in and are also processed, and they add studio material and then other material and then it goes out to the world. Basically, it is a giant television studio."
As Argentina and Germany go head to head in Cape Town, the IBC might not look as well populated as on other days but, again, that hides the enormity of the operation taking place. In the ZDF/ARD studio, one of 15 studios erected within the 30,000m² complex, preparations are under way for their biggest match of the tournament so far. With 30 cameras in place at the Cape Town contest, the Johannesburg section of the 550-strong German operation are readying themselves for the big event. Their technical preparations, however, can be traced as far back as the conclusion of the Winter Olympics in February, when all the equipment was shipped from Vancouver and Whistler straight to South Africa to begin setting up.
The IBC is managed, implemented and designed by the host broadcaster of the FIFA World Cup. Work on the project started almost four years ago when FIFA TV began discussions with the Local Organising Committee as they looked for a suitable venue. Now in full swing, there are more than 40 TV crews around South Africa, following the teams and the action. The IBC, based around a local convention centre, uses 7,900km of cable, has 3,000 accredited people and required the building of 12,200m of new walls.
Fundamentally, the broadcast technology has not changed from the operation in Germany four years ago – the live images are fed into the Master Control Room and then distributed to the different areas within the IBC where broadcasters are able to work with them, tailoring them to their own needs, before they go back out to the satellite farm, or are pushed out of the IBC via fibre optics, and sent to the relevant countries. However, the historic addition of 3D output – with 25 matches transmitted from five of the venues, using eight 3D cameras at each match - and the commitment to increased live mobile phone content has also added an extra dimension to the IBC's role.
Technology aside, perhaps the most striking benefit of the IBC is the comradeship among the broadcasters. "If you are missing any information, maybe concerning the Spanish team, then you just go next door and ask the guys. Otherwise, the people come here and ask something about the Germans, and we can help each other really easily, and that makes it a big family here in the IBC," said Nils Kaben, ZDF Sports reporter.
A few corridors away is the office of English broadcaster ITV Sport. "A lot of the presentation for the last few World Cups and European Championships has been done either on the road, or in the case of the World Cup in 2002 from back in London," said news editor Stan Ilic, who is equally appreciative of the two-way operation that has developed in the IBC village. "It's fantastic. Being across the corridor from ESPN in the build-up to England v USA was great and we were able to swap all kinds of material with them. By and large there is a real spirit of co-operation between broadcasters, which you probably don't often find. It's great to all be under one roof and your own programme only benefits from getting that co-operation from others." Of course, this sense of unity has its limits. "There's always a bit of ribbing," reveals Ilic. "We were laughing at the French when they were imploding and they were laughing at us when England were going out."
"It has been an enormous success," concluded Ericson. "In the end, what counts is the audience and that football fans are viewing it. So far, our television clients have record audience figures and we are very happy about that."