In the build-up to the Rugby World Cup, there was a degree of chatter about how broadcasting novice Spark would handle the likes of production, commentary and graphics - especially given that rival Sky has recently lifted its game in the production-value department.
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The answer is that Spark's RWC coverage is co-production with TVNZ, with the state-owned broadcaster doing most of the heavy-lifting.
You'll see the same production, and listen to the same commentary team and analysis, and the same graphics and whiz-bang extras, and sponsors whether you watch via Spark Sport's stream or TVNZ's coverage (TVNZ will show 12 games, including all of the All Blacks' pool matches and assumed quarter final on a one-hour delay, and both semis and the final live. A surprise TVNZ-Sky side partnership means commercial premises like pubs and clubs will get access to a Sky pop-up channel showing RWC games).
If you watch the one-hour games on delay on TVNZ, you won't see any ads - or, at least, no commercial messages beyond those that appear in Spark's coverage. Spark says Spark Sport will carry ads, but not during the game and not after the haka. When the Herald visited TVNZ's RWC set for a sneak preview, virtual signage for AIA, Heineken and KFC was onscreen.
TVNZ's GM sport and events Melodie Robinson (who recently joined the state broadcaster from Sky) says TVNZ and Spark are sharing costs. All of the production is being handled by TVNZ, which has created a new purpose-built studio for the RWC, while Spark is handling the stream, and wrangling partners iStreamPlanet and Akamai.
While TVNZ has built an RWC set, much of what the viewer sees in its studio coverage will be augmented reality (AR), or 3D graphic representations of various stadiums in Japan, or 3D All Blacks, who will be overlaid on the real-life set. Ex-All Black and coach Jon Preston will be able to walk among the virtual members of the New Zealand squad.
As part of the preparation, All Black team members were full body-scanned by Wellington company 3Dfy-Me (see video above). "With a few last-minute editions," Robinson says (and presumably some hard drive space was freed up as the 3D scan of Owen Franks was deleted).
As things stand, the virtual ABs - all to scale - will appear to rise from the studio floor to stand next to Preston. If last-minute development goes well, before the end of the tournament we could see virtual All Blacks jog onto the set.
And if TVNZ and Spark continue development for future rugby coverage, we could even see a virtual recreation of a scrum.
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Preston will also use Libero AR software for his half-time analysis, aiming to show the patterns of key plays and give an All Blacks-eye view.
The official RCW game feed that Spark Sport and TVNZ will carry will feature graphics from Australian outfit Ignite - meaning, ironically, that Spark and TVNZ will benefit from technology largely developed for rival Sky (Ignite is an independent company, but is very closely associated with Sky - to the degree that its Auckland team is embedded with the pay TV broadcaster).
Spark, of course, has reason for a few nerves about its RWC stream, from a number of "user error" problems that are likely after a last-minute rush of signups to recent wobbles with its English Premier League coverage (where three games have been hit by glitches) to the general internet gremlins that hit Optus' attempt to stream the FIFA World Cup across the Tasman last year and Amazon's US Open stream for the UK earlier this month.
By using AR, TVNZ is, to a degree, adding a fresh element of danger - although it will at least have a bit of control over when to use augmented reality. And it's playing it safe. An initial plan to have animated AR All Blacks was put on hold in favour of static versions, though we may see moving virtual ABs by the end of the tournament.
"America's Cup mastermind" Denis Harvey is executive producing the TVNZ/Spark RWC coverage, and a large match-calling, analysis and colour-commentry team includes everyone from Scotty "Sumo" Stevenson, poached from Sky, to Sir Graham Henry to Anika Moa to injured ABs utility back Damian McKenzie and Black Fern Kristina Sue.
The general feel is that TVNZ and Spark are really trying to prove their chops as a sports broadcasting duo.
Robinson won't put a figure on their production budget, but the pair have certainly gone in boots and all. Asked if the high level of cooperation, and spending, implies a commitment to work on future sports events, as Spark eyes more rugby - and other A-list codes - Robinson will only smile wryly and raise her eyebrows. "We'd like to show more free-to-air sport," she says.
That's a grand ambition, but it could also run smack into Sky's newfound ambition to not lose any more sports rights, with new CEO Martin Stewart recently cancelling the company's dividend, opening new $200m credit line and apparently putting a $400m bid on the table for Sanzaar rights once its current five-year deal expires at the end of the 2020 season.
Other World Cup Coverage
Radio Sport (part of the NZME stable that includes the NZ Herald) is the official radio broadcaster for the 2019 Rugby World Cup and Radio Sport's Nigel Yalden will be in Japan to commentate all of New Zealand's games live.
Live commentaries will also be on NewstalkZB.
And the Herald will have half-a-dozen people on the ground in Japan and carry live-blogs, analysis, interactive player ratings and more.
NZME is even bringing back Buck as part of a star-studded panel.
And a bonus, if you go old-school with radio or a live-blog, you'll be ahead of the play - for Spark Spork's RWC stream will be up to 40 seconds behind the action due to the time taken to encode the video for multiple devices, then get it from Japan to NZ to the US home of Spark's streaming partner iStreamPlanet then back to NZ via Spark's content delivery network partner Akamai).