Television technology has reached a new peak with the advent of crystal clear high definition TV - offering armchair sporting spectators an experience close to that of a live game.
Grounds and venues are wired for sound and vision to an ever-increasing level of complexity, not only in the number of cameras and microphones positioned to record the action, but also in their location.
But, satisfying the viewing public's insatiable appetite for televised sport comes at a price. Pressure on stadium and operations managers, as well as groundscare professionals, to deliver the goods for the big broadcasters mounts year by year. As televised fixtures become ever more lucrative, grounds staff have to ensure the build-up runs smoothly and seamlessly.
Horse racing is one sport that one might not immediately associate with camera close-ups, action multi-replays and a myriad camera positions but, as Andrew Cooper - director of racing and clerk of the course at Epsom and Sandown Park racecourses explains, preparation for and planning of a televised event in many cases has more hurdles to clear than an average football or rugby fixture.
"We have contracts with the BBC and Channel 4 who televise at both Sandown Park and Epsom. Channel 4 tend to cover more at Sandown, with the BBC broadcasting our biggest event - the four-day Derby meeting in June."
The courses are two of fourteen owned and operated by The Jockey Club Racecourses, who negotiate and manage contracts with the TV companies, he explains. "We will often liase with other racecourses in the group over the racing, turf husbandry and turf agronomy, because every racecourse in the country is required to employ the services of a professional agronomist but, as far as TV is concerned, we do not decide ourselves anymore which production or broadcasting companies to use."
He also maintains links with two non-terrestrial channels, Racing UK, which airs a greater amount of the racing from Sandown and Epsom, and a free channel called At the Races. "Their production teams have even less input or involvement than Channel 4 or Sky," he adds, "and they will usually come in on the same day and get the job done quickly and efficiently, which eases our work."
The TV production team at Epsom is Sunset and Vine, who are in charge of all the arrangements for the televised events throughout the season. The process of planning coverage of next year's event begins virtually as soon as the last spectator has left the course, Andrew explains. "In the wash-up meeting we discuss how everything went and how to improve on it for next year. Six months before the event, the build-up process begins in earnest," he adds.
"The Epsom spring meeting in April serves as a good practice run for the Derby. It allows us to run all our production equipment in a real race event, enabling us to pick up on any problems that might arise or assess the success of any pilot schemes we might be running. Each year, we talk to the TV companies and our own production teams about any innovations in camera work as a way of looking for new ways to improve the experience of horse racing for viewers."
Several new ideas surfaced recently, including wire cams, gibs, moveable and hand-held cameras. Not all can be taken forward. "It is important for us to balance spectator pleasure with our strict safety concerns. Safety of the horses must come first, therefore any experimental camera positions that might risk spooking them have to be dropped," he stresses.
"The idea of tracking cameras is a great one," he continues "and would make for great TV, but employing them at such a bustling, busy event like the Derby is difficult," he admits. "Cameras mounted on vehicles travelling in front of the runners could be potentially too dangerous for both spectators and horses," he remarks. "But we like to remain open to suggestions and to incorporate them into the coverage if at all possible. After all, it is in all our interests that we do so."
Helicopters are used to cover racing from a fresh perspective, although even then, height limits apply - usually about 1000 metres above ground is the threshold. "Noise is a major factor", Andrew says, "and has disrupted the speaker in the past, not to mention the nuisance to the horses."
Racing differs from televised sports such as football, athletics, and cricket, where cameras can come in really close to the action. "We don't have that luxury," he says "and we have to remember that animals are involved, so we have to take every precaution to ensure that we don't do anything that might put them ill at ease."
Wire cameras have been adopted successfully but, unlike sports like athletics where the wire cam runs right alongside athletes, courses simply cannot take a similar approach. "No gap exists between riders and spectators to run the wire, so we need to elevate the cameras above the crowd, which limits the scope of coverage."
Budgets also play a part too and, if television companies or broadcasters believe something is just too expensive, it gets ditched, Andrew says.
Hand-held cameras used in front of horses - after the race or as they walk out to the start are used but have caused problems when the cameraman moved in too close.
The method moved on at Epsom last year, with the BBC piloting a battery-controlled platform for cameramen. "In the end, the horses were becoming spooked by it, so we had to pull the plug on that idea," Andrew recalls.
Another pilot did surmount the tough criteria however. Perimeter advertising, commonplace in football, was introduced for the final leg at Kempton Park last summer. "There was no negative impact, although we couldn't have the electronic moving advertising because of the distraction to the horses. A good example of how a new idea will be tried out at a smaller venue to gauge its success."
A week before the Derby, the big set-up begins, with the BBC usually arriving on the Monday before the event.
The ducting and wiring is usually in place permanently, but cameras can be changed if production teams wish it, although all decisions have to be checked for safety. "That said, we definitely see our relationship with the TV and production teams as a partnership and we are not in the habit of saying no lightly," he stresses.
"We must retain a balance between the dual commitment of maintaining a high level of security and safety while striving to make the racing as exciting as possible for viewers at home."
Epsom is a major rigging exercise, with some ten fixed camera positions adopted to cover the Derby, as well as hand-held units.
For events such as the Grand National, microphones and cameras are often positioned at the jumps and even fixed within them to achieve the dramatic views of the riders clearing the hurdles. "They can prove temperamental," Andrew says. "Riders can knock them, rendering them redundant."
Nine of the twenty-eight days of fixtures at Sandown Park are televised, while of the fourteen day Epsom calendar, the BBC will be filming the four days of the Derby meeting. "Viewing figures and trends are generally fairly static and we usually have to work pretty hard for our audience. The only time we see any real fluctuation is when there is a clash with another major sporting event, usually every two years when either the football World Cup or European Championships are staged."
A six-strong team link with television for the Derby, including the head groundsman, chief executive, site operations manager and health and safety personnel. Like many newly-built stadia and spectator areas, Epsom's new £27m grandstand, due for unveiling next year, will feature television cameras as an integral part of its design, making their work that little bit easier - in theory at least. But when you are accommodating the demands of a 100,000 throng on site - as well as the viewing millions, nothing can be left to chance.
That applies as much on Derby day as it does at Sandown Park, where peak attendances are 18,000, and the norm, 10,000.
Innovations continue to roll out of racing coverage, despite the potential perils of working in a sport dominated by galloping thoroughbreds. Most recently, the BBC introduced cameras in the steward's room to gain a candid view of a steward's inquiry, for example. "As you might imagine, there is no sound," stresses Andrew, "but it offers further proof that we are all trying to look for new ways to make the race more exciting for the viewer."
Several racecourses have also introduced cameras mounted on jockeys' helmets - certainly offering a dramatic view of the race, although neither Sandown nor Epsom TV teams has requested this to date, he notes.
"In recent years, planning for a televised event has become much more demanding on us," he confesses. "That's not a bad thing - quite the contrary. It means that the race is more exciting for the viewer and there is always scope for new ideas. Cameras now go into the jockeys' changing rooms at the end of a race. We are open to any suggestions that the TV companies might have."
Those attending Derby day will be hard-pressed to spot the television teams, Andrew concludes. "Our dress code is especially strict in high profile areas. Morning wear in the Queen's stand and smart casual in other areas, for example. They are as much a part of our event as everyone else. We have no complaints. They understand our position."
Durham County Cricket Club is basking in glory after lifting the crown as champions of the LV Division One this season. The club's rise to prominence is bringing, in its wake, greater demand for coverage from the media, says operations and events manager Richard Dowson.
Four years in the post, he has overseen Durham's meteoric pace of development (also four years in the premier division). "Our success is due to three factors," he says: "An investment of money, a successful and growing Academy side and the purchase of quality players from the UK and abroad."
"That success has prompted rising interest from television and we now enjoy more county and test match live transmissions as well as the Twenty20 game."
Sky is the main broadcaster, with Channel 5 taking highlights.
The pre-season meeting, which includes the head groundsman, sorts out arrangements for the season's televised games, he says. "We then meet a few weeks beforehand to discuss the finer points for each individual match."
"Typically, six to eight games a season are televised, but that may be more if we progress well in a cup competition or if we continue to do well in the league."
The recent state-of-the-art media centre contains television studios, so Durham are well equipped for broadcasters. "The BBC also record their Test Match Special for radio and we have a room ready for them when they need it," says Richard. The media centre includes a purpose-built camera gantry that can cover 12 of the 24 pitches on the square - especially the central six strips, which are the ones most commonly used for games and Test matches and are those wired for sound and vision.
As the commitment from television firms up, the issue of permanent cabling is coming up for discussion. "It's an aspect that is being developed," says Richard. "We have installed some ducting but, at the moment, it is mostly temporary. Cables are laid around the perimeter of the ground and pitchside, stewards handle any problems that might arise."
Arguably, the most intriguing aspect of camera work in cricket are stump cameras. Brought in by the television crews with the camera already fitted inside, the stumps connect with underground cable terminals positioned about two inches behind the stumpline and covered with trapdoors covered in artificial turf. From there, cables descend to some two feet below the playing surface and run out to the boundary.
"My part in planning for television coverage is to ensure that health and safety criteria are met and that all connections, wiring and ducting does not pose a problem to players, the groundstaff or others accessing the pitch. I tend not to get involved with the TV crews work, as I trust that they know what they are doing," Richard explains.
Compared to sports such as horse racing, cricket holds many possibilities for camera positions, ranging from stump and mid-wicket positions to the Hawk-Eye computerised system for tracking ball trajectory, but most are decided at the beginning of the season.
"Trends are always changing and my job is becoming tougher each year as technology changes, but this is great for the club and we are lucky that Sky are so cooperative to work with. If we cannot give them a camera shot they want, they usually understand why."
The complexity of camera coverage for cricket has reached its limit, Richard believes - at least for the time being - but recent developments, such as staging concerts that attract 20,000-strong crowds, will bring both Durham and television fresh challenges, he maintains. Ground improvements will swell spectator capacity from 16,000 to 20,000 by 2010, a reflection of the following the club now enjoys.
Not everything runs according to the schedule though. In his ten years as head groundsman, David Measor has witnessed a few difficulties in delivering televised coverage.
"I liase with the production teams in the run-up to a game, primarily relating to camera set-ups and cabling. The only real issues concern the groundsheets. If the weather is particularly bad - as it has been in the last couple of years - water can collect on the surface and we use the blotter machine to soak it up and remove it to the perimeter."
"Problems can arise when we are trying to clear the water while the production teams are also trying to do their job. At the risk of stating the obvious, they are not keen about water coming into contact with perimeter cables."
David managed the aftermath of the 2000 flood, when the nearby River Wear burst its banks. "It's an ever-present danger," he says "The water levels rose dangerously high again last year after heavy rainfall and we had to call off the one day Twenty20 game against South Africa."
The rain coming down and the river levels coming up offered no gradient for groundwater to drain away from the venue.
"What can be frustrating is when I have prepared one of the off-centre strips for a game, but the broadcaster prefers another one, because of sponsorship or camera position issues."
"The television teams are pretty good though and give us plenty of notice if they want to change anything. That's an increasingly important issue because Durham are enjoying far more televised action now they are a big player."
Mirroring the pressure that groundscare staff in football are experiencing because of greater media exposure, cricket staff too are feeling the strain more, David admits.
"There is certainly more pressure in the job over the last seven or eight years. Because of the millions watching on TV, you are under far greater scrutiny than before."