Sidepodcast - All for F1 and F1 for all

Pump up the volume - Giving the audience control - Taking lessons on fan access from the Wimbledon tournament

Published by Christine

At the beginning of the month, Sidepodcast enjoyed the men's and women's final of the 2011 Wimbledon tennis tournament. Famed for its lush green grass, the royal box, vast amounts of strawberries and cream consumed, and some of the best ball boys and girls in the world, Wimbledon has become iconic for something else now as well.

In recent years, the event has also become notorious for another piece of tennis folklore - the grunts and screams of players putting their all behind each swipe at the ball. The ladies' tournament, in particular, features many players who punctuate their games with a burst of vocal enthusiasm, and its starting to get on people's nerves.

Mixed messages

During the 2011 Wimbledon fortnight, audio research organisation Fraunhofer released an experimental piece of software, the NetMix, enabling users to tune down the grunts of players and enjoy more of the commentary insights. The simple control system allowed viewers watching a Centre Court match to weigh the audio more towards the court sounds - the thumping of feet, bouncing of balls, and coughing from the umpire - or tune those sounds out completely, in favour of voice commentary from the experts.

It's a simple, and by no means perfect solution to a problem, and whilst it is still just a trial for Fraunhofer, it could open up a whole new era of user controls in sports broadcasting. Professional athletes know they are nothing without their fans and sponsors, and getting as many people watching as possible is key. It's almost an impossibility that you can please everyone all of the time, though. Giving more control of certain elements of the coverage to the viewer could make participating sports more appealing.

Sébastien Buemi makes his serve... underarm
Credit: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

For Formula One coverage, the BBC could very well open the software up to filter out all commentators, and allow just the beautiful sound of the engines. Or you could tune out the track microphones and listen to the insight from Martin Brundle. Finding the balance has always been left to the producer, but now it could fall right back into the hands of the viewer.

Within F1 terms, it raises a few interesting questions as well. As the BBC appear to be wavering in their support of Formula One, should this be something that becomes a standard - perhaps a feature of televisions? A simple up/down button on the remote control could do the trick, and make the technology accessible to anyone who knows how to switch a television on.

Perfect pitch

Equally, an argument is brewing within Formula One at the moment regarding the future of engines and what kind of sound they will make. Future regulations plan to restrict engine technology, and that, in turn, may make F1 sound different. If sound is such an important part of a sport, then the NetMix software could play an integral part of that.

Complaints poured in that the background music was far too loud, drowning out what could have been engaging television

I can see it working exceptionally well on stadium-based events. The nature of tennis, football and athletics mean there are crowds cheering, and plenty of distractions from the action. For other kind of sporting endeavours, such as the Tour de France, or the Golf Open, there are fewer sounds to filter out, and NetMix may not be as useful.

In a non-sporting example, Professor Brian Cox recently presented a science-based programme on the BBC, that he felt was a work of creativity, as well as an educational piece. After broadcast, complaints poured in that the background music was far too loud, drowning out what could have been engaging television. The BBC, against Professor Cox’s wishes, altered the music mix before the next episode was aired.

Sport is, perhaps, less of an art form than a piece of scientific filmmaking. Would Maria Sharapova, one of the loudest tennis players, feel as indignant if a viewer chose to lower her yelps in favour of the BBC’s 5Live commentary team? It seems unlikely.

Aural fixation

There are plenty of additional questions and complications that make this emerging technology one of the distant future, rather than something that we’ll find installed on our TVs anytime soon. Would it only work on live events, or could there be an option for pre-recorded items as well? Could it work on soap operas or the news, helping to filter out the bits of TV you don’t like? Would it affect the way advertisers present their products and might it even put potential investors off?

The technology has the potential to change broadcasting considerably – by altering user’s expectations. In its current experimental stage, the NetMix technology raises a lot of questions and does not produce any answers, but it does show a potentially bright future, of increased viewer control, and more options to consume media the way you want to, rather than having just one compulsory option.

In 2012, Wimbledon may be less about strawberries and cream, less about the Royal Box and Centre Court, and more about raising and lowering volumes to get the perfect aural mix of tennis thwacks and Tim Henman’s dulcet tones guiding us through the Championship Final.