Webcast Evolution

How technology is changing the way we watch heats, for better or worse

All the microphones and GPS trackers in the world can't distract fans from Joel Parkinson's frontside carves. Photo: Joli

For years the argument went like this: competitive surfing will never become a mainstream sport because it can’t be effectively broadcast live. And until the emergence of webcasts, no one challenged these assertions. Then, less than a decade ago, the first primitive surfing webcasts—slow-loading, grainy, and reserved for the most die-hard fans—only bolstered the belief that any sport subject to the whims of the ocean will bore audiences to sleep. It’s difficult to contend, however, that World Tour surfing is more lethargic than PGA golf, for example, which gets aired on basic cable all the time.

Recently, contest webcasts have begun to offer the same trappings as mainstream sports coverage. Expert commentary, prompt scoring, and instant replay are standard. Secondary features draw viewers closer to the sport’s icons: cameras attached to jet-skis give the feel of what it’s like to be in the lineup, and post-heat interviews develop surfing’s personas. Watch Kelly graciously answer even the most inane question at length, while Dane mumbles a thought or two as he stares off into space. The unpredictability of live coverage is what makes it exciting. We get the feeling that we might hear something we’re not supposed to, and thus, are getting a more unfiltered look at our surfing heroes (See the Round 1 interview with Fred Patacchia from the 2010 Rip Curl Pro Bell’s Beach).

Other webcast gadgetry seeks to legitimize surfing as a sport by making it more quantifiable. At the Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast, VX Sports provided GPS tracking devices to measure each surfer’s top speed. However, this led to the anti-climatic conclusion that Gabe Kling is the fastest surfer on Tour (top speed of 41.5 kph or 25.7 mph)—a less than earth shattering reminder of the fact that surfing is judged aesthetically and not scientifically. In other words, there’s a reason why other World Tour cohorts, such as Mick Fanning, have risen to earn monikers like “White Lightning,” while Gabe Kling has garnered the nickname “Piggy.”

To its credit, however, the GPS tracking device emphasizes a valuable lesson: making improvements to the coverage of live surfing requires a bit of trial and error. Meaning for every good idea there will be at least a dozen pointless and uninteresting ones.

A graph showing speed and distance traveled by competitors was incorporated into the Quik Pro at Snapper.

Another addition to live coverage, split-screen replay, which allows fans to simultaneously watch two surfers split a peak— right and left—is a perfect example of webcast technology in need of refinement. It seems the problem is a basic and uncorrectable limitation of human sight: eyes can’t track in opposite directions at the same time. As a viewer, attempting to analyze two waves at once had a sort of dizzying effect, leaving my 20/20 vision feeling altogether inadequate.

In any case, enhancing webcast technology can be a lengthy process—just ask Rob Moscato and Chris Cloutier of Fstop Aerial Media. Their vision began taking shape three years ago in the form of a remote-controlled helicopter with a Go-Pro attached. As Rob explains: “We started flying it at Salt Creek and people were really stoked on it, so we kept putting money into it, getting some much better equipment, and now the helicopter we have is worth about $20,000 and is very stable.”

Cameras on the beach and in the air. Every angle is the name of the game in 2011.

The heli-camera is a customized, remote-controlled helicopter with a Canon 7D onboard. Rob navigates it with a remote while Chris focuses on controlling the camera to keep surfers in-frame. Their hard work was debuted at this year’s Lowers Pro, where they captured a bird’s-eye-view of the contest.

But if some new technological developments have the effect of holding the viewer’s attention, others only highlight the fact that watching a webcast is hardly the best use of one’s time. Consider the microphone attached to surfers. By mating a microphone to surfers’ contest singlets, this ingenuous piece of technology enables listeners to hear the inflections of every last top-turn and tail-huck. Unfortunately, no one paused to ask the more basic question: why would anyone want to hear that? The result is what sounds like a fish trapped in a pillowcase—hardly what comes to mind when thinking of cutting edge technology.

Tim Denmark, a surfer from Encinitas and the founder of H2audio, is the brain behind the surf microphone project. After years of providing sports audio for football, NASCAR, and baseball, he recognized a void in surfing, asking himself, “Why is it that my sport is the only sport without an ambient soundtrack?” In his view, an “ambient soundtrack” is an essential feature that all live sports coverage must provide. And if Denmark’s work signifies nothing else, it represents a shift in thinking. Competitive surfing is now viewed, by some, as a viable source of live entertainment for mainstream consumption.

Compared with other competitive sports, the live broadcast of surfing is still in its infancy. But in the last three years, several World Tour events have gained footing on FUEL TV and local television in Hawaii and Australia. Who knows, maybe filling the lulls with new technologies will allow live surfing to reach the next level of mainstream attention. The next question is, are we sure that’s what we want?