The Big Picture

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Today’s air show has evolved well beyond pitching a lawn chair and ogling aircraft. Technology is reshaping our industry and, while large screens may be too expensive for most, there is a rapidly growing expectation that we offer them. Most other outdoor events already use at least one big screen along with the creative use of small screens such as smart phones, tablets and wearable devices. Some within our industry have designed apps while other performers and shows are taking advantage of Twitter and YouTube’s live-streaming options. They all have their rewards and challenges. 

I’ll start big. 

Nothing beats the impact of a big screen to create maximum impact, entertain your fans, increase advertising effectiveness, give promotions extra punch and connect with your crowd. But, be warned: it can also be a budget buster; big screens = big bucks. And there are other challenges.  

My biggest experience with these screens was as a track announcer for Formula One racing. Norman Prieur of the Grand Prix Du Canada says, “Ticket buyers expect big screens at most big outdoor events these days and — with racing — you need to provide one for every grandstand at every corner of the track/”  In Montreal, they race on a street course with a dozen grandstands that all feature a large HD screen. “Because the course is only used for racing once a year, the temporary facility needs to be hard wired. The set up needs to start about month before the race. Today’s large screens are modular and, while they don’t take much time to set up, linking them together with hundreds of smaller screens in the VIP areas and the media center is a massive task,” says Prieur.   

New weatherproof, high-definition LCD televisions can now be seen in brilliant sunshine, but it doesnt come cheap; the price range per screen for the smaller 42-to52 inch HD sets runs from $6,000 to $14,000 with giant screens starting from $15,000 for a weekend. Priuer cautions, “Dont own it! The technology is changing too quickly to buy your own screens. It’s better to hire a company that will design something specifically for you. Tell them your needs and let them execute it.” 

Riedel Communications is the supplier for both Formula One and the Red Bull Air Race World Championship. They integrate HD video and audio signals as well as wireless and wired digital intercom systems. Additionally, Riedel is supplying the wireless video links for onboard cameras enabling stunning pictures to be delivered from the pilots’ perspectives without dropped signal.  

You hand it over to their experienced project managers. They take the entire project into consideration and develop a plan from start to finish. That plan includes the local regulatory authorities which is important, as almost all of our events happen at an airport. But, once again, it is a very expensive proposition. 

Big and Small 

Angel Banchs of Media Solutions, OSA International, Inc. who, in partnership with Reality Check Systems,  provided the “infotainment system” for Tampa Bay AirFest at MacDill Air Force Base in March says, “We had a bit of inclement weather on Saturday. The beauty of the system is that we were able to immediately put up a live weather map of the upcoming thunderstorm. We were able to show the audience that they should head to the first aid hangars for their safety. Nothing got the audience’s attention like seeing the coming band of thunderstorms in real time. This was one of the features that the security forces thought brought a tremendous level of safety to the AirFest.” According to Banchs, another plus was, “The system also allowed us to do a two-window style split on the screens. Because we had so many angles on the action, we were able to not only highlight the acts currently performing, but also the performers who were up next, keeping the audience engaged at all times.” 

“We provided three long lens cameras to get closer to the action. With our longest lens, we could clearly see right down to the edge of runway 22 at MacDill. We were able to keep an eye on the aircraft much further away than audience members. This kept the audiences engaged even when they could not see the aircraft on their own. With multiple angles on the action, we were able to get reactions from the crowd as well as performers when they returned from their performances. We were also able to grab shots of performers signing autographs and engaging with the crowd. Audiences loved the NASCAR style victory laps we were able to film in front of the air boss stand. We were also able to turn the camera on the audience and invite them into the show. We did several audience shots to let them know that they were an important part of the AirFest. Kids and parents loved seeing themselves up on the jumbo screens. Everyone loves to see kids engaged and in awe of the amazing performances happening right in front of them.” Banchs continued. 

Integration was a big part of the success as well, he explains, “TrellisWare Technologies were able to put cameras everywhere we wanted and more. The TrellisWare guys are usually down range helping Navy SEALs and Special Forces guys with their live field communications. They provide communications in critical situations. This is why we thought they would be a perfect fit for the AirFest. Jumbo LED screens were provided by OSA Media Solutions who set up two 40-by 20 foot LED screens to project all of the aforementioned action to our audience members. The screens are all weather and high definition. This allowed us to present our show in the highest quality possible. The screens are modular so they can be built in any size desired. The two screens were set up at either end of the show line to reach as many audience members as possible.” 

The cost can be managed. As Banchs points out, “Moving forward, we aim to present this package to the air show community for future shows. We believe that the magic combination would be one where the air show committee gets a free system which is paid for by advertising dollars. This brings value to both entities. The air show gets a system where the audience members get to be a part of the performances. This also brings the air show to social media in a way that most folks are already used to. Sponsors get to reach more future customers by keeping a live presence in front of audiences. The live webcast also creates a platform where fans who usually follow performers like Michael Goulian and Kirby Chambliss can watch live from other parts of the world. At the same time, advertisers can also reach a new, untapped audience which means greater revenue and added value to those advertisers.” 

Llew Roberts of Airshow Technologies works with and for Jeff Franchini, Owner at JRF Ventures, to provide large screens to the smaller budget Chilliwack Airshow in British Columbia. They have come up with an affordable air-to-ground video link. “Jeff pretty much put the whole system together. He’s an electronic genius and he did this all from scratch,” says Roberts. They both see it working “Crowds really respond well to big screens. Reno used to use them and they were fantastic there. Unfortunately, the cost is around $15K per weekend for the screens, and it requires dedicated professionals to set up, tear down, and produce the video that goes on the screens. This takes the cost way up.” Roberts also has a cost saving idea: “I’ve thought about this a lot; I would like to see air shows along the West Coast pool together and lease a system that can be used by different shows. Since there are shows throughout the summer, we could probably get five to ten shows to invest, bringing down the cost for each.” Chilliwack, along with an air show in Rimouski, Quebec, are two shows I’ve worked that utilized a big screen owned by their municipality. Check and see if yours does as well.                                                               

Smaller Screens 

We know through ICAS research that the average air show fan is carrying and using their smart phone, tablet and wearable device for more than taking pictures or calls. Air show performer Gary Rower built an app for both Apple and Android users that includes the ability to stream live video. The app includes the air show’s name, “YOUR”APPLIVE, which is published and available roughly 60 days before the event. “About two years ago, I realized that society was living with their smart phones and we needed to put the audience in the cockpit to really enhance the entertainment and bring it into the 21st century. At first, industry folks said it couldn’t be done. Bottom line, they were wrong. It isn’t easy, but we have and are doing it.” He continued, “As we developed the app, we decided to ask the questions, ‘What would the audience want,’ and ‘What do promoters need?’ That drove us to the design of the app. We also realized that the app provided great opportunities for sponsors and advertisers to achieve measurable return on investment. Finally, the app allows the industry to reach the next generation of air show fans.” 

Rower understands the challenges and says, “They are twofold. The first is the obvious problem of bringing tens of thousands of cell phones into a small area. Simply, it crushes the cellular network, so we have to bring in our own network to support the app and provide internet backhaul. The second problem is latency. All the existing commercially available camera/transmitter systems have too much lag between what is happening and what the air show fan sees on their phones. We have developed our own self-contained hi-res system that overcomes that problem.”  

Unlike big screens, the costs are more manageable. Rower points out “Yes, it is affordable. This incredible technology costs less than 75 cents per spectator. For a medium sized show charging 20 dollars for a general admission ticket, the cost to bring in the entire system is less than two percent of the ticket price. Raise the ticket 40 cents and you’ve got it covered.” 

Canadian air boss David White, who also runs QLD Communications, a mobile and radio tech company in Waterloo, Ontario, echoes the concerns of over-loading saying, “Cellular carriers optimize their systems for the loading they expect day to day. Airports typically will have a specific number of people on site during peak periods who can be accommodated. They also have height restrictions to antenna structures within a few miles of the site for obvious reasons. This number of people and their bandwidth use is typically dwarfed by the air show crowd size.” 

White cautions, “The more devices you have in a specific area, the more bandwidth is needed. We all see this while working air shows when devices become unreliable due to the sheer number of users utilizing the available bandwidth. For this reason, as an air boss, I suggest that cell phones NOT be used as an emergency communications path to Air Traffic Control, Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighting or any other critical path since the delays in making a phone call can be devastating.” 

White welcomes the idea of a live-streaming app, but says, “Designers and show producers MUST consider bandwidth. Nothing would be worse than introducing a new and exciting feature to your show only to have it not work on show days. Social networks buzz with angry people because the latest and greatest did not work.” 

White suggests working with the carriers, “So Wi-Fi bandwidth must be added, or a cell carrier “partner” must be secured to add significant bandwidth to the site. If it is a carrier partner, you must tell potential users that only X amount of customers will be able to utilize it. My business marketing side is already developing a pitch to AT&T, Verizon, Bell and Rogers about how this adds to their loads. Ask a carrier, or large scale IT company how much bandwidth will be needed for your worst case (or best depending on your viewpoint) number of people will be there and make sure this on-site bandwidth has reliable and large-scale, back-haul capability to get it to the internet. Alternatively, these apps must be designed so they do not go to the outside world and you can connect locally to a large capacity Wi-Fi network on site.” 

Steve Teatro of The Air Show Network who produces the San Francisco Fleet Week event says, “The cell companies add a couple of towers in the city whenever there are major events like the Super Bowl, Americas Cup or Fleet Week.”  The San Francisco event is a challenge for audio coverage because the viewing area for most of the general public is quite large. A local AM radio station has in the past broadcast the commentary from start to finish, but next year the show will stream audio on the internet. “Regarding bandwidth, they start with an estimated size and — as the demand increases — they add servers,” says Teatro. “It’s similar to how a DOT traffic website works. Take Snoqualmi Pass in Washington State, for example; the traffic website was inundated during the first winter storm of the year on the U.S. Thanksgiving. My son-in-law manages their site and he received an email when they reached 85 percent capacity. They then rerouted some traffic and more than doubled their bandwidth in real time.” As far as cost goes, Teatro adds, “The provider of the stream lets us link from our app or website direct and we control the images that go along with the audio. Their model is a percentage of any pay per view/listen.” 

Keeping Focus 

Jeff Lee of LiveAirShowTV who’s been using both technologies favors the big screens, saying, “Again, its all about the people that pay to come to the shows. Most of them spend many hours of their week ‘heads down’ in devices or on computers. One of the most attractive things about an air show is that its exactly the opposite; its an invitation to look up and to share the spectacle of flight with the other fans.  Big screens add to that more than iPhones, or there wouldnt be big screens at football and basketball games. Research shows that the main use of mobile at events is researching event info and downloading related content. Mobile is a part of life now and apps are great for things like wayfinding, enhancing static displays, pushing vendor specials and promoting social media.” Lee notes that fans, “are holding up their devices to record their own photos and video.” 

He knows the challenges well. “For shows that want to stream live, the biggest challenge is originating a video feed from the middle of a ramp where theres no place to “plug in.” There are solutions like dedicated wireless channels or a satellite uplink, but — with any outdoor event — remote broadcast carries a cost.” Lee also cautions the bandwidth challenge saying, “Regardless of infrastructure, bandwidth suffers with multiple users of Wi-Fi in one house, let alone a crowd of tens of thousands. The only true way to avoid latency is hard-wired video, which is what we use because it offers the best fan experience.” 

He leaves the installation on the aircraft to an expert; “Weve always trusted Mark Magin with that because hes been doing live on-boards for years and, most importantly, the performers trust him with their aircraft. OnBoard Images has always been at the cutting edge of the technology, and seeing the pilots view at the same time they see the aircraft maneuver really engages the crowds.” 

Lee is also aware of how fast the technology changes, suggesting, “The most important thing to focus on here is not the technology, which is always changing and improving, but the experience for air show attendees and online fans watching live or later. At practically any other large, outdoor venue there are screens adding to the experience and video available afterwards. To an extent, air shows disappoint fans by not providing them.” He quotes Phillip Hurst, a marketing and sports TV veteran with whom LiveAirShowTV has been working on business strategy: “Air shows don’t necessarily have to incur the production cost, big screens or apps themselves. One look at sporting events shows that brands spend lots of sponsorship money on at-venue entertainment to reach the exact same people that go to air shows.  We’ve been working very hard to develop this model with air shows so our industry can tap into that.” 

Lee concludes by saying, “Air shows may be the best kept secret in marketing. Local and national sponsors just need to be educated about how demographically attractive the audience is and how open the environment is to sponsored entertainment experiences. When that happens, shows will take a long-overdue leap forward in terms of fan engagement and show organizers will benefit.” 

Moving Forward 

More than adding a new fan experience, the use of these screens, big and small, offers new streams of revenue, ways to enhance information from showing live social media reaction, to promotion contests and sponsor messages. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+, LinkedIn etc., all play a major part in almost everyones everyday lives. The big screen provides an excellent canvas on which to allow interaction with an audience through social media walls, from displaying messages and photos to triggering events from polls to quizzes and games. 

So, here’s the big picture. While costs and other challenges may be holding us back now, we know the technology is rapidly changing, making it more affordable and less complicated so our newest fans will get what they expect in the very near future.

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Ric Peterson
Ric Peterson is an an air show announcer and award-winning broadcast journalist based in Odessa, Ontario.