Joel Felicio is bound to miss the quiet moments at the Tour de France: Walking the final kilometer of each day’s route; gazing at the soaring Alpine peaks; and discussing the day’s juicy news over coffee with journalists and producers.
“That’s a big part of the Tour that I enjoy,” Felicio told VeloNews. “Visually, driving up those mountains every morning is such a spectacle.”
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Felicio produces the Tour de France telecast for NBC Sports. For the first time in his 20-year career, Felicio will not be at the Tour de France this year. NBC Sports has grounded its Tour de France broadcast team due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which means Felicio will manage the American broadcast from a studio in Stamford, Connecticut, 3,600 miles away from the action.
Felicio is not alone. Some of the Tour de France’s biggest international broadcasters are staying home this year due to COVID-19 and the restrictions placed on international travel. Eurosport, Australian broadcaster SBS, ITV, and NBC Sports are among the major broadcasters to minimize or eliminate their respective on-the-ground operations at the race for 2020.
That means dozens of broadcasters like Felicio now face a similar challenge: How do you make the Tour broadcast look and feel the same if you aren’t there?
“From my perspective, if you turn on the TV and you can’t tell we’re not there, we’ve done our job,” Felicio said. “In theory, it should look exactly the same.”
While this year’s Tour de France telecast may look the same on television, it will be dramatically different behind the scenes.
Producing the Tour
A Tour de France broadcast relies on a highly coordinated team of producers, directors, on-air commentators, and technical officials. Every year NBC Sports brings 65 employees to the race, and houses its team in three soaring trailers found in the race’s broadcast paddock.
These teams receive the raw footage of the race, filmed by French company Euromedia France. NBC Sports producers take the raw footage and add graphics and music, and mix in commentary from announcers. They splice in interviews or feature segments, and then beam the final package to a satellite uplink.
After each stage concludes, each company’s roving reporters fan out across the team busses to film interviews with riders — the footage is then woven into the post-race analysis show in real-time.
This process won’t look dramatically different in 2020 — now, the raw feed will be beamed to Connecticut, where Felicio and his team will mix it into a TV show.
“It still comes in, we put our bells and whistles on it, and it goes to air,” Felicio says. “Only now it’s coming into Stamford, so it won’t be that different.”
There is a critical difference: Time zone. Rather than start his day at 8 a.m. in France, Felicio and his team will now begin work at 2 a.m. East Coast to plan the day’s action. By the time the race concludes that afternoon, they will have been working all day.
NBC Sports’ commentary team will also see dramatic differences. In a normal year, commentators Phil Liggett and Bob Roll would sit side by side in a production booth, calling the race in a booth near the finish line. This year, Liggett will bee in a studio in London, while Roll will be in Connecticut.
Felicio, meanwhile, will coordinate between the two men from his booth.
“Not being able to talk to those guys whenever I want to will be challenging,” Felicio said. “You find workarounds. You get used to the new normal.”
And NBC Sports’ normal on-ground reporters Steve Porino and Steve Schlanger are both stateside, since the current travel restrictions forbid Americans from entering Europe. British rider Adam Blythe is joining the broadcast to conduct post-race interviews. And rather than do so at the team bus, these interviews will be conducted in a mixed zone, where riders can maintain distance from the crews.
All of this adds up to a dramatic difference in manpower at the race. NBC Sports will have just 10 people at the Tour de France this year.
Commentating from afar
Commentary teams that are not in the same location face a greater challenge than normal this year. Effective sports commentary requires chemistry between commentators, and the innate ability to avoid talking over one another.
That’s simply easier to do in person than from two locations separated by thousands of miles.
“There’s always an element of talking over one another that’s going to happen during 21 days of talking,” said veteran commentator Rob Hatch, who works with Eurosport and GCN. “It just shouldn’t happen every two minutes.”
Over the past five months Hatch has called multiple races remotely from his home in Spain, often linking up with fellow broadcasters in the U.K. Perfecting the ebb and flow of remote commentary took time, he said, and more than a little trial-and-error.
While calling the Zwift Tour for All, Hatch discovered a valuable tool: the FaceTime app.
“During the first few days we couldn’t see each other at all and we were talking over each other more than usual,” Hatch said. “Dan Lloyd and I started using FaceTime, and once that happened it seemed ridiculously normal.”
Web-based video conferencing allowed Hatch and Lloyd to give each other nonverbal cues for when and when not to speak. The reliance on apps like FaceTime and Zoom, however, put a premium on high-speed internet; so much so that Hatch passed on commentating on some races because he was in a location with poor wireless internet.
“If you have a shit internet connection, don’t even think about it,” Hatch said. “If you have even a small delay, you can forget about it. If a sprint is going on you won’t be able to react in real-time.”
So important was strong wifi that Hatch paid to install faster internet in his home, knowing that his future commentating work depended on it.
NBC Sports learned the value of live video during its recent broadcast of the Critérium du Dauphiné. As Felicio monitored the broadcast in Stamford, Christian Vande Velde called the action from his home in South Carolina, while Roll chimed in from Durango, Colorado.
The lessons the crew learned during the five-day race will be employed throughout the Tour.
“It wasn’t a home run on day one — you can’t hear this, or you talk over that,” Felicio said. “And by the end, it was a solid system.”
What’s lost by staying home
Carlton Kirby has called hundreds of bike races throughout his 30-year career, both on-site and from the studio. Kirby said that the nuts-and-bolts of commentating on a bike race are exactly the same, no matter the location of the commentator.
Commentators watch the action on a television, and then talk about what they see on the screen.
“No matter if you’re in a mobile unit at the finish, or in a studio with air conditioning and a coffee machine, you’re doing the same thing, the view out the window is just different,” Kirby told VeloNews. “The actual bones of the job are quite similar.”
So, why send commentators and producers to the Tour at all?
Everyone interviewed for this story said that commentators and producers lose valuable intelligence when they stay at home. Sure, they will read the stories online and see the results this year from home. But they will likely miss the smaller stories, as well as the mood of the athletes and fans.
Throughout the Tour, Kirby mingles with reporters and team directors to talk about the race. He absorbs information about the status of the race and the condition of contenders and the top teams.
And while that information may not impact how he calls a sprint, it feeds his running commentary for the other four hours of the race.
“You need the details. Painting a verbal picture of a five-hour race is stream of consciousness, and to be able to do that effectively, you just need to be there,” Kirby said. “You get the atmosphere and emotion of a place. You get the mood of the crowd, and of the press. All of this stuff adds to the vérité of the broadcast, and it’s stuff you cannot get in a studio in London.”
With broadcasters staying home this year, the Tour de France commentary is likely to be focused on the biggest storylines. Smaller stories and less-obvious debates may fall through the cracks. Or, commentators may dig into their memories to tell stories of past races to fill the time.
“I’ll talk about the same stuff except I’m making it up — it’s the art of illusion,” Kirby said. “Talk about what you know.”
That’s likely to be the most noticeable difference this year. The commentary may feel a bit dry because the teams simply aren’t at the race.
Whether or not fans can tell a difference begs a pressing question: Why send broadcast teams to the Tour de France at all? Sending dozens of staff overseas to spend a month driving across France is an expensive and complex undertaking, especially when it can be accomplished from the home base.
“I think fewer people will go to the races in the future when the paymasters realize they can save money by not sending them,” Hatch said.
Everyone interviewed for this story said they hope their respective employers return to the Tour de France when COVID-19 conditions improve.
“We want to go back to the way we did it previously, as soon as possible,” Felicio said. “Getting back there is the priority.”
Still, it’s a question that is likely to loom even after the era of the virus. If Felicio, Hatch, Kirby, and the other broadcasters do a strong job during this strange 2020 Tour de France, their employers may see the broadcast success as an opportunity save in the future.
But whether or not that comes to fruition cannot change the fact that in one week, Joel Felicio and his NBC colleagues will have to flick on a switch and produce the Tour de France, just as they always have, only this time from the other side of the globe.