American cycling fans were denied TV images from the Tour of California yesterday because of the rain. But the Giro d’Italia has seen rain on almost every day but manages to broadcast extensive coverage. How come?
The Tour of California is relying on helicopters for overhead shots but the same helicopters also “relay” the microwave signal from moto camera crews in the race below on to the production truck located at the stage finish, which then uses a satellite feed to beam the images on for broadcast. Only with the rain and cloud cover the helicopters could not fly in the cloud cover, meaning no relay point for the signals and hence no TV yesterday.
So why the Italian coverage? Well they add an extra link to the broadcast chain, they use a relay aeroplane, in fact they often use several planes. The motorbikes and helicopters both send their images to the planes above which then beam the images onto the production truck at the finish. So if the helicopters get grounded, the relay plane can still send the motorbike images on to the finish because planes can fly in cloud thanks to navigation instruments.
These planes take part in a complex aerial ballet, flying over the race but clearly an aeroplane travels at greater speed than the race, it cannot hover like a helicopter. So often several planes fly in and out of the broadcast zone, circling in a holding pattern above the race.
All this is very expensive, putting many the sky involves a lot of flying hours and fuel. For a normal race broadcasting costs €80,000 per day, for the camera crews, the aerial activity and the satellite bandwidth.
But in a bigger race like the Tour or Giro, a lot more resources are thrown into the broadcast; you can accept missing a smaller stage race but the massive audiences – and national pride – means the show must go on, no matter what the weather. The Tour de France especially uses HD images and has a squadron of planes to ensure all the action is available on your screen.