Inside NBC’s Tour de France television broadcast
This feature story appeared in the January print issue of VeloNews magazine. After the story went to press the cycling world learned of the tragic passing of longtime NBC broadcaster Paul Sherwen. We here at VeloNews send our condolences to Sherwen’s friends and family.
It’s lunchtime at the Tour de France, and the muggy Pyrenean air casts a lethargic haze across the broadcast television paddock. The lazy atmosphere is lost on Joel Felicio, who marches around a production truck, hurdles a thick bundle of cables, and cuts into a buffet line alongside commentators Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen. With every step, Felicio lists the programming headaches presented by today’s unorthodox stage, a 65-kilometer route over three mountain passes. The two-hour stage may be favorable to spectators; it is hell for television producers like Felico.
“Normally a [stage] is five hours, so you can plan your commercial breaks around that,” Felicio says. “Today? We have no idea what’s going to happen.”
With a boyish complexion that defies his 43 years, Felicio has worked on the Tour de France broadcast, in some capacity, for most of his adult life. His professional title is coordinating producer for NBC Sports Network. The label fails to explain the pivotal role he plays within American cycling. Felicio controls what American fans see on their TV and computer screens at any moment throughout the Tour’s 21-day broadcast. He then produces the post-race show that boils down the six-hour stage into a compelling story.
It’s a job that requires an intimate knowledge of the sport and the ability to manage constant chaos. Pro cycling has no predetermined breaks in the action like stick-and-ball sports. Crashes and attacks occur without warning, reshaping the race in seconds. Should Felicio’s commercial break come at the wrong moment, fans simply miss the action. Once the riders finish, broadcasters face additional hurdles. Scrums of journalists and fans surround the riders, forcing cameramen to push through to capture the action.
“There’s a reason why hundreds of people work stick-and-ball sports but only a few of us can do cycling,” Felicio says. “You have to want to bring the sport to American viewers who are still discovering it.”
Felicio takes a seat besides another NBC producer, David Michaels. The younger brother of famed sports commentator Al Michaels, he once carried a television camera on a motorcycle during the Tour de France in the mid 1980’s. Now 69, Michaels has worked on the television production for dozens of sports, from Olympic gymnastics to the Super Bowl. The Tour, Michaels says, has always lured him back.
“Cycling is like a drug,” Michaels says. “No two days are the same. Some days it’s like trying to turn a cruise ship around in a bathtub.”
Joel Felicio (above) inside the NBC production truck. Photo: NBC Universal
Michaels helped pioneer cycling broadcasts in the 1980s; Felicio has produced the Tour de France since it was first shown live to American audiences in 2001. Combined, the two have more experience televising the Tour than any Americans, ever. There is enormous pressure riding on each man’s shoulders throughout July. NBC broadcasts 380 total hours of Tour coverage across its television channel and digital streaming service, NBC Sports Gold. Every day, hundreds of thousands of American fans tune in to watch the action. And NBC spends millions to produce and broadcast the race.NBC is not alone. This expensive and complex operation sits atop the growing collection of American businesses aimed at televising pro cycling. Television has long been viewed as cycling’s Shangri La, a pathway to advertising riches, financial sustainability, and mainstream recognition. In the past, enormous operations like NBC’s represented the only way to bring live images of a bike race into the homes of cycling fans. Broadcasts became an important line in the sand between races that mattered, and those that did not.
Now, technological advancements have enabled even small races to beam the action across the globe. Yet every cycling broadcast, big or small, faces a similar conundrum: how to generate enough cash to make it worthwhile? Most cycling broadcasts—including NBC’s Tour coverage—lose money, despite the best efforts of Felicio, Michaels, and their team of producers. If NBC’s operation cannot turn a profit, then what’s the point of televising bike racing at all?
(above) The complex system used to televise the Tour de France. Illustration: Heidi Carcella
An expensive system of cameras and transmitters
American cycling fans in the 1980s and ’90s had few opportunities to watch the sport on television. While Europeans enjoyed live coverage, American producers like Michaels created highlight shows that were shown after the event on U.S. television. That changed in 2001 when the Outdoor Life Network, looking to cash in on Lance Armstrong’s popularity, began daily live coverage of the Tour.
“In the old days, we’d sit around and think about what live coverage would even look like,” Michaels says. “I wouldn’t have dreamed it would ever happen.”
The switch to live broadcasts created new technical challenges for American networks. Broadcasting traditional sports is comparatively easy, since the cameras, cables, and production trucks all sit in one location. Pro cycling’s best features—the soaring alpine passes, breakneck racing speeds, and 100-mile routes—make the sport a nightmare to televise.
The Tour de France broadcast relies on a fragile ecosystem of mobile cameras and radio transmitters, spread out over hundreds of miles of countryside. Euro Media France is the company that actually shoots and transmits the race, and France Televisions produces the main feed that goes out to broadcasters like NBC.
How does it work? Cameramen on motorcycles capture the action, which is beamed via radio signals to relay helicopters and airplanes circling high above the action. The signals are then bounced off of relay transmitters along the route, up to a satellite, then back down to production trucks at the finish line. It’s there that producers like Felicio add in graphics and commentary and beam the final feed out across the globe.
“There are so many variables that are out of your control,” says Jim Birrell, managing partner of Medalist Sports, a longtime cycling production company. “If you wake up and the route is socked in by bad weather, well, then your [airplane] is grounded and you’re going to be showing a blank screen.”
Veteran broadcasters tell horror stories of various system failures. In the 1980’s the broadcast was often interrupted when the peloton went through a forest. During one stage of Colorado’s USA Pro Challenge, the race’s relay transmitter above the ski town of Breckenridge malfunctioned during a lightning storm. Birrell’s broadcast technician had to drive to the top of the peak to readjust the transmitter in the storm.
“It was ballsy stuff—he put his life at risk,” Birrell says. “We got connected five minutes before going to air. We had to make sure the client was happy.”
(above) Helicopter TV cameras add hundreds of thousands of dollars to cycling broadcast. Photo: Getty Images
Technological innovations have improved the overall system. More cameras provide different angles, and high-definition tech creates a crispier picture. Still, technology has not dramatically changed the overall system, and the complex pathway from camera, to airplane, to satellite, remains the same.
“When it comes to capturing images and audio, there’s nothing that has really revolutionized the way we broadcast these races,” Birrell says.
Instead, technological advances and new techniques have revolutionized broadcast for smaller races. Cameras now transmit images via cellphone signals and wireless internet networks, and inexpensive ground-mounted cameras now televise criteriums and cyclocross events.
Starting in 2012, Gene Dixon, founder of the USA Crits series, mounted four cameras at the crucial turns at the Athens Twilight Criterium, and hired students from the local journalism class to man each camera. The feed ran to a tiny production team, housed in a trailer, before the show was beamed out over the internet.
Dixon discovered he could televise a race for less than $15,000, and began to televise the other USA Crits events. In the ensuing years, Dixon’s production company added more features, like graphics, on-screen timing, and live results. He invested $150,000 in new cameras and infrastructure and began to work with other small events. Now, the entire USA Crits series is broadcast online.
“We learned a lot by trial and error,” Dixon says. “We do the whole thing with eight or nine people—it’s really bare bones.”
At the 2018 USA Cycling National Road Championships in Knoxville, Tennessee, Birrell utilized cameras that used cellphone signals to capture the entire race. The technology saved him the tens of thousands of dollars that are required to fly the relay airplane.
The new technology and techniques are hardly a cure-all for cycling’s broadcasts woes, however. Broadband cameras cannot function in the mountains or in other areas with bad cell service. The picture quality is lower and there are frequent delays in the action. The cheaper methods are often glitchy.
Rob Laybourne, manager of the Armed Forces Cycling Classic, streamed his race using Dixon’s production company for three years. Laybourne said the inexpensive methods caused frequent technological headaches and the constant fear of a blank screen. Now, Laybourne’s race is shot and broadcast by the local cable station, Monumental Sports Group.
“Is the [new technology] raising the bar or lowering it? I don’t know,” Laybourne says. “The main thing I learned is that if you actually want viewers, you have to do more. Just because you stream your race doesn’t mean they’re going to watch it.”
And whether this new technology can improve the broadcast system at major stage races like the Tour de France is still unknown. Televising a major race like the Tour de France or the Tour of California requires enormous manpower, which sends costs soaring. Could broadband cameras and new methods someday eliminate the airplanes and throngs of production staff? Perhaps, Birrell says, but only if it eliminates the costliest component of the operation: manpower.
“The technology you want is the stuff that can reduce your head count,” Birrell says. “That’s where you get crippled by costs.”
Economics of the Tour broadcast
Inside NBC’s production truck, a dozen or so producers squeeze past each other in a long, narrow workspace. Felicio sits in front of a wall of television screens, each showing different angles of the race. He slips on a wireless headset and begins to deliver orders.
“I have to be super buttoned up with my communication,” Felicio says. “Whatever is in my head, 50 people all need to know it at all times.”
NBC brings more than 60 staffers to the Tour de France—only British broadcaster Eurosport has a larger production footprint. Every day, the entire operation—TV screens, producers, and even the studio show set—are packed up, loaded on trucks, and driven to the next day’s finish line. The costs for an operation of this size are staggering. NBC does not divulge its final bill for the Tour broadcast, however sources familiar with broadcast costs pegged it at $2 million. And that’s not the biggest expense.
In 2012 NBC bought the rights for the Tour de France for 10 years; the deal ends in 2023. Sources familiar with the deal say it is worth $8 million a year, bringing NBC’s costs to nearly $10 million for the Tour each year. NBC representatives declined to comment on the rights fee it pays to broadcast the Tour de France.
A myth within American cycling is that NBC generates healthy profits on the Tour broadcast. Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC and NBC Sports, says the Tour loses money.
“All of that production going from city to city is an enormously expensive undertaking,” Miller says. “Does it make money? Not yet.”
The Tour’s television ratings, which often determine advertising revenue, fluctuate from year to year. In 2018, between 200,000 and 300,000 viewers tuned in each day on television. In 2009, Lance Armstrong’s comeback year, that number was twice that size. By contrast, a midweek NHL game regularly gets more than 500,000 viewers.
“The Tour does a lot of other things for us beside making money,” Miller says. “It adds to the mosaic of what we’re trying to do as a business.”
What is NBC trying to do? The Tour forms an important cornerstone of the company’s online streaming channel, NBC Sports Gold, which charges fans $50 to watch online and commercial free. Subscriptions help generate revenue amid a weak advertising market. The service has another strategic purpose. U.S. cable television subscriptions have plummeted in recent years; simultaneously, more Americans than ever stream shows to their computers and phones. A decade from now, will digital streaming be the predominant way Americans view sports?
NBC Sports Gold represents a gamble on this unforeseen future, and the Tour is at the very heart of the bet. In fact, the Tour was the first televised sport offered on NBC Sports Gold when it launched in July 2016. Now, NBC’s “Cycling Pass” subscription includes 19 total races, including the Vuelta a España, Paris-Roubaix, and the UCI World Championships. Portia Archer, NBC’s vice president of direct-to-consumer products, says cycling fans were the ideal group to launch the streaming channel because many already streamed the action on pirated feeds.
“We understood pretty quickly that cycling fans were an eager audience that had been underserved in many ways,” Archer says. “We thought we could provide a high-quality alternative.”
After three seasons, the metrics for NBC Sports Gold are encouraging. Throughout 2018, NBC Sports Gold’s cycling viewers streamed racing to approximately 600,000 devices, up 20 percent from 2017. Since its launch, NBC has added 11 other sports to NBC Sports Gold.
But the streaming product still loses money. A source familiar with NBC Sports Gold pegged the number of subscribers at 125,000, which equates to $6.5 million in subscription revenue. That sum does not even cover the rights fee for the Tour de France.
Therein lies an unfortunate reality for televised cycling. While the Tour de France generates tens of millions from its broadcast deals—Tour representatives declined to comment on the race’s television revenues— broadcasters like NBC often lose money. And further down the pyramid of American cycling broadcasts, it’s a similar story. The major U.S. stage races such as the Amgen Tour of California, USA Pro Challenge, and Tour of Utah have all sunk millions of dollars into television production, accumulating heavy financial losses in the process. Live TV represents an important carrot needed to lure in mainstream advertisers, which have large enough marketing budgets to help cover the overall costs of the race. But the cost of television production often pushes the overall race budget into the red.
And unlike the Tour de France, domestic races pay broadcasters for the airtime; these deals, called time buys, cost a half million-dollars or so for a weeklong race. That expense, plus the cost of production, can easily push the tab for television to $1.5 million, Birrell says.
“People think we’re making a s*** ton off of television; in truth we’re losing money,” Birrell says. “It begs the question: Is it worth it to the races to try and get that airtime?”
Perhaps streaming is the answer. Across the sport, other companies are experimenting with subscription models similar to NBC Sports Gold, rather than relying on traditional advertising revenue from TV broadcast. For 2017, the Giro d’Italia abandoned traditional U.S. television and instead sold its American broadcast rights to the subscription streaming service Fubo.tv. Fubo representatives declined to comment on sales. Also, the website Flobikes.com sells subscriptions to view a wide array of races, from the Tour of Flanders and the Giro d’Italia, to international cyclocross races.
In 2018, USA Crits also launched a subscription service after several races began to show promising viewership numbers—Athens Twilight alone had 20,000 viewers as a free livestream. Dixon said USA Crits hopes to someday share revenues from this broadcast with the riders and teams that participate. Those days are a long way off, however, and the service has yet to generate a profit.
“We’re still more about passion than we are about money,” Dixon says. “If we can put together some revenue from people who really love the sport, we can raise the game for everybody.”
Generating that level of cash, however, may require an increase in broadcast production. Laybourne decided to switch from Dixon’s broadcast to Monumental Sports in part because he was unhappy with Dixon’s production quality. In Laybourne’s opinion, it only attracted hardcore cycling fans. Could a broadcast with more bells and whistles bring in casual fans too? The Armed Forces Classic in 2018 was streamed across Monumental Sports’ own digital streaming platform. The broadcast included mid-race interviews, graphics, and more camera angles. Monumental offered a one-time subscription price for the race. Laybourne did not know how many subscriptions were sold, but estimates it “was in the hundreds.”
“We’re trying to add a larger array of entertainment,” Laybourne said. “Sure, you’re going to get the hardcore fans with a [basic] broadcast. Our question is how many casual fans can we get?”
Laybourne believes this number will grow, and wants to invest in the broadcast quality to win over more fans. Of course, zipline cameras, advanced graphics, and professional broadcast staff drive up costs. And nobody knows where the perfect balance between cost and revenue lies.
(above) Schlanger must navigate the chaotic post-stage scrum throughout the Tour. Photo: Getty Images
The day-to-day hurdles of broadcasting the Tour
The clap of helicopter blades beats overhead signifying the approaching peloton, as dozens of journalists and cameramen crowd the finish area. Steve Schlanger, one of NBC’s on-air reporters, pushes through the crowd, flashes his credential to a security guard, and steps into an empty area just behind the finish line. Moments later, Schlanger and his cameraman sprint in the other direction alongside a gasping Chris Froome. Over the ensuing 75 seconds Schlanger conducts a tense on-air interview with Froome, as the Tour champion continues to pedal through the scrum.
“It’s like a mosh pit. It’s always a whirlwind,” Schlanger says about his job. “I’m usually running everywhere to try and get the interviews we want.”
This chaotic scenario plays out at the finish of every stage; winners and jersey leaders enter the broadcast paddock where they deliver polished sound bites for the cameras, while the other riders push through a free-for-all of journalists and fans. Schlanger and his NBC counterpart Steve Porino must navigate the chaos to interview these riders. Often times, these impromptu chats produce the most valuable comments. On this day, Schlanger is the only TV journalist to interview Froome after the reigning Tour champion was dropped.
“We put together a game plan of the guys we want to get based on the top stories,” Schlanger says. “Who was a key player? Who was disappointed? You get a lot of the best stuff from [these riders].”
These off-the-cuff interviews form the backbone of NBC’s pre- and post-stage studio shows. Felicio and Michaels choose the discussion topics—often the GC battle, or the events of the day—and help book special guests. The video interviews featured on the show, however, are often decided by chance.
“We’re constantly texting and calling each other trying to see who we got,” Felicio says. “It’s stressful.”
As an added hurdle, the post-race show is produced in real-time, which ups the pressure for everyone involved. After Schlanger conducts an interview, he texts Felicio, who then radios NBC’s on-air talent.
Simultaneously, a staffer takes the interview memory card from the camera and physically runs it back to the production truck. Producers edit the footage and add it into the broadcast, while the on-air hosts cue it up for the audience. It’s yet another expensive and fragile system that is crucial to NBC’s broadcast. And while new technology may someday streamline the process, it’s doubtful that the inherent challenges or exorbitant expenses will ever be entirely removed.
During an afternoon conversation, Felicio replays another impossible broadcast conundrum. Quick-Step rider Julian Alaphilippe had taken a dramatic victory after Adam Yates crashed just a few kilometers from the line. Belgian rider Philippe Gilbert had crashed into a ditch. Earlier in the day, local farmers staged a protest, which led to police using tear gas to disperse the interruption.
At the the finish line Gilbert was bloodied, Yates dejected, Alaphilippe ecstatic, and dozens of riders upset. Which story should NBC chase?
“I had to pick the order,” Felicio says. “It’s like, do you even talk about GC on a day like that?”