What is the art of great sports broadcasting? In conversation with Des Dearlove, Barney Francis, Managing Director of Sky Sports, zooms in.
Barney Francis is managing director of Sky Sports. In a television career spanning 18 years, he has worked in the multi-channel, terrestrial and independent sectors. At Sky, he was executive producer for cricket, leading his team through two ICC World Cups, two Ashes Tours, England tours to nine nations, and the first Twenty20 Cup. In 2007, he became executive producer for Sky’s Premier League football and in 2008 executive producer for the EUFA Champions League. As managing director, Francis has continued to enhance the Sky
Sports roster of sporting legends, adding the Masters from Augusta and Formula 1 to its rights portfolio as well as overseeing the introduction of 3D — broadcasting the world’s first live 3D sports event in 2010.
The excitement of live sport is that you never know what’s going to happen next. But that must be a nightmare for a manager. What’s it like making decisions in real time — with millions of viewers watching?
It means that very often your decision-making process has to be based on pure instinct. When you are producing or directing television programmes, you have to make a decision now. Not in five seconds time, because the viewer at home is thinking what on earth is going on?
So I think very quickly you’re able to understand right from wrong, you’re also able to decide, if you are taking a programme in this direction, whether it be a football match or a cricket match, if that’s wrong, very quickly you need to jump from path A to path B without the viewer at home noticing. So it’s a good grounding for management, in many ways. You go into any live broadcast thinking this is what we plan to do today, but things could change. Who knows? The floodlights could go off in a football match.
Do you remember any real examples?
There was the England versus Pakistan Oval cricket test match of 2006, when the Pakistanis decided not to come out after there had been an allegation of ball tampering. They went off for tea and refused to come out afterwards. We were expecting another 35 overs of cricket in the day and all of a sudden there was this live domestic incident, which brought in both governments, and became a very sensitive issue.
And there’s no warning?
That’s right. You think you’re heading in the right direction. If you’re sailing a boat, you think you’re heading towards that beautiful sunset, and the boat suddenly veers off course. You’ve just got to manage that. You’ve just got to manage it and hope that you can tell the story in full for the viewers.
Presumably it comes down to getting your pundits to respond as it unfolds?
That’s right. You’ve just to break the story as best you can. And, of course, our cricket pundits are experienced cricketers and journalists. But you’re suddenly asking guys who are used to talking about sport to deal with a diplomatic incident. Over the next few days, both
Foreign Offices became involved. But there and then it was a diplomatic incident, and you’re asking them to comment live on a political story rather than just a sporting story. So it was a tough walk through the next few hours, but I think we did it fine.
There can’t be many jobs that are so completely spontaneous, with millions of people watching and having an instant view on whether you’re doing a good job or you’re doing a bad job?
Yes, that’s true, but the secret to our success is that everybody that works at Sky Sports is obsessed with sport. So they’re the ultimate viewer. If they weren’t working on it, they’d be sitting at home watching it. And that’s a really good backdrop, editorially, for anybody, because whether it be a cameraman, an engineer, the director, a commentator or the executive producer, you’re sitting there thinking what would I want to see? What questions do I want answering right now? If that informs your decision making, then it becomes really easy.
Can you enjoy watching sports broadcasts when you’re sitting at home on your day off? It must be a very strange experience?
I’m an Aston Villa fan. Do I enjoy watching Aston Villa, and do I get behind watching Aston Villa? Naturally, given my job, the most important thing is that the show is as good as it can be. And we have this unwritten rule that today’s show must be better than yesterday’s. And without that, you just stall and float and just carry on ad nauseam. So I’m always looking at the programme as broadcast first, and then the event second. So can I enjoy it? Yes, I can enjoy it.
The passion is still there somewhere but it comes through a professional filter?
You were recently described in a newspaper interview as “likeable but ambitious”. Are those two things at odds?
The way they wrote it — likeable but ambitious — suggested there was something sinister about being ambitious. But you would expect anybody who works in our company or in our sector to be ambitious. It’s right to be ambitious — we are a customer-facing industry that always has to provide the best for our customers. So if I was not ambitious I wouldn’t be serving them properly.
Let’s talk a bit about your early career. You started at the bottom — as a runner on the This Morning show. Do you think that’s coloured your view of leadership?
I started at ITV, went to Sky, went to the BBC briefly, came back to Sky, but you’re right, I’ve come through the layers and you see and experience how things are done by your own bosses as you come through. So I think naturally that influences you.
How would you describe your own leadership style?
What would people say? Fair. I think I’ve got integrity. I think doing the right thing is at the heart of the whole company’s ethos, and I think we do that whether it be: do the right thing, which football matches to select; do the right thing, which shots to get; do the right thing, which presenters to put together; do the right thing, how to post-analyse a programme with your team; do the right thing, walk through the office, engage in conversations with people. That underpins the whole business.
Doing the right thing can be difficult sometimes. You’ve had hard decisions to make. When the commentators Andy Gray and Richard Keys were fired for sexist comments, for example. Football does have that lad-ish element to it so was that a hard decision, or was the line very clear for you?
Richard and Andy overstepped the line, and we needed to take swift and decisive action. And we did and we moved on.
And the ratings don’t seem to have suffered.
No, the ratings haven’t suffered, and it’s a good message to all of us that we are all absolutely dispensable. A Manchester United fan will watch United whether Alex Ferguson is managing or whether they’re wearing pink shirts rather than red.
As managing director, how do you see your job description?
What do I actually do? I have a Sky Sports function, which is five channels of live sport which means numerous contracts with lots of governing bodies — they are relationships that I work on closely. Then there are five channels to fill — there’s production teams who make the programmes. There’s a roster of on-screen talent which constantly needs changing and pushing on. And there’s a budget to manage. And the wider part is where does Sky Sports fit into the Sky business? Because Sky has developed from being a television company 20 years ago to being an entertainment company, and a broadband service, and a telephony service. My particular function has a big role to play in the wider Sky story, just as all the other different departments of Sky have, too. So it’s appreciating where sport fits into all that, and how sport can help develop the story of Sky.
It is clear that one of your core competencies is being passionate about sport. What are the other core competencies?
People management is a major part because we’re dealing with a broad range of people, from on-screen talent, who have certain needs, to guys who’ve been in the television business for an awful long time, with huge experience, to Generation Y under 25s who come and join Sky and have interests in Facebook and Twitter and social media and want to explore that.
An ability to develop relationships with governing bodies — that’s crucial. I think most people consider that what Sky does is comes in, buys up the rights, exploits the rights. There’s a lot more to it than that. You know, when we work with a governing body, it’s in a partnership, it’s to help — obviously it’s to help us, but it also helps via funding grassroots initiatives, participation levels, and the development of the sport. So an ability to understand it’s more than just a financial transaction for business purposes. There’s a lot more that’s involved.
You mentioned social media. Twitter’s also in that real time space where people have instant reactions — will that have a big influence on live sports broadcasts?
What live television should not do currently — certainly while Twitter and social media are still in their earliest years — is respond directly to what’s being said on Twitter. We have experienced programme makers and there’s a narrative to the programme — there’s a beginning, a middle and an end, and we want to get that out. I think in the hands of experienced entertainment television programme makers, like they have at ITV, and the independents that make it, are probably still best placed to work out how to tell the story of the show. So if somebody didn’t like a particular commentator on a football match, and started up a campaign on Twitter, we wouldn’t decide halfway through the first half, right, let’s get him off and put somebody else on, because there’s an adverse reaction.
Before you know it the England manager would be under pressure to make substitutions in a game because of what’s being said on Twitter.
Yes, that’s right. You absolutely have to listen to opinions, you have to take them on board, but you have to consider them in the round, because ultimately these are customers. Customer feedback is absolutely essential, but often it is people with extreme views who are passing comment on social media.
So you need to balance it out.
Sports fans like their sport the way they like it. How do you innovate at the right speed?
Innovation comes in many forms. Ten years ago in television terms, innovation meant gizmos, and new broadcast tools, and we’ve used loads of those over the last 20 years. There have been real game-changers, whether it be hawk-eye hotspot technology in cricket which is now used by the umpires, or whether it be what we call high motion cameras, thousand frames per second cameras. I remember we first introduced those in the West Indies in 2003, I think, and they were horrible grainy pictures from a horrible grainy camera, which was used by car manufacturers to film crash test dummies. But it managed to capture this inordinate number of frames, which was so exciting, and now it’s kind of the norm not only in sports coverage but all sorts of other coverage. But it’s not only innovations like that, but innovations in terms of people. We take great pride in taking a sportsman and making him or her a broadcaster. That’s not easy. I think there are lots of critics of sports pundits out there. That tells you exactly how hard it is to do — to take somebody who had a career and was excellent at that career and now we’re going to turn them to do something completely different. So I think that’s a great innovation when you can turn somebody into a pundit who really informs the viewer.
What’s the secret of being a good football pundit?
It’s an art form. There is a void among football pundits for those who can actually tell you something different. What Andy Gray has always been brilliant at is telling you something that you don’t know. Because you and I can sit and watch a replay and say, oh yes, look, he’s crossed it from the left and nodded it in. A great pundit tells you something different that you can’t see yourself. And in any sport, too often you hear a pundit who just tells you what you can see, whose opinion is backed by credibility, but actually he’s only calling it as you and I would call it. So that’s what Andy is brilliant at, and that’s what I always thought former Manchester United captain, Gary Neville, would be really good at. Because it took one coffee in a café on Baker Street with him to convince me that he could tell us something that we don’t know.
Do you give someone like Gary Neville training?
Yes, you do. You give him essentials, and then you let him start, and then you start honing those skills over time. I think Gary Neville was never in any doubt. It wasn’t a doubt for me. I understood how he polarised opinion — but I didn’t see that as a problem.
The fact that he is identified with Manchester United, and some people find that hard to swallow?
Yes, sort of 19 to one. Manchester United fans like him and there are fans of 19 other clubs that might not appreciate his views so much. But actually, he had all the credibility in the world. So he gets training in basics. We would never tell him what to say about football, and he would never tell us what to say about television. So you start this relationship, which develops over time, and then you give him a bit of a free rein, and he’s doing exceptionally well.
3D was a seismic shift for us, to show that we could do it. The first ever live 3D broadcast. The first-ever 3D channel. So that was another great thing. HD. It’s funny how HD is now just considered the norm. People hadn’t heard of SD before HD came along — SD was Standard Definition, and we now call SD Sub-Standard Definition, because HD is the norm. So I think HD was a game-changer, and again we were the first to do that. I think we’re just always looking to give value to the customers really. For their money, they expect stuff to change. But they still want from the whistle to the whistle — they still want the story being told. That’s the most important thing.
Francis is a graduate of the Senior Executive Programme at London Business School.
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