Sunset+Vine furloughs 100 staff, adapts production set-up in face of Covid-19

UK-based sports production and media company Sunset+Vine has furloughed around 77 per cent of its full-time workforce at it seeks to shield the business from the impact of the Covid-19 shutdown.

Around 100 of the company’s 130 full-time employees have been furloughed – the process in which employees take a leave of absence but remain on the company’s books – as a core team continues to work on productions for broadcasters and sports rights-holders.

The move affects Sunset+Vine’s staff at its Hammersmith headquarters, at the Stratford-based production facility of pay-television broadcaster BT Sport and at the company’s Scottish and Welsh operations. Higher earners have also taken pay cuts to ease the financial pressure.

Sunset+Vine continues to produce pundit-led football and rugby union programming for BT, adapting the format and production workflow accordingly. Elsewhere, the company has looked to innovate during testing times with projects including the production of live streaming coverage of Team Ineos’ virtual cycling race.

Speaking to SportBusiness, Sunset+Vine chairman Jeff Foulser said: “Like everyone else we just fell off a cliff the moment the [UK] Prime Minister announced that people should stay at home and implement social distancing. We went from loads of outside broadcasts happening in the middle of March to nothing. It’s been dramatic.

“We’re fortunate that we’ve got a strong balance sheet and plenty of cash in the business and we’re part of a group of companies (the Tinopolis Group). We moved quite quickly to make sure we preserved our cash to enable us to keep going way into the future.

“We’ve got a plan that now keeps us going until at least September and beyond.”

Foulser (pictured) added: “I don’t think everyone is going to be in the same position and a lot of smaller [production] companies will find it very difficult to get through this.”

Freelancers have been paid for the work already done, Foulser noted.

He continued: “We [usually] employ hundreds of freelancers every week and we can’t pay them for work they’re not doing. We’ve got to try and protect our staff and business first and keep the business going.

“When we do get going then we’ll be delighted to welcome the freelancers back and start paying them. Sadly we can’t pay them all as well, it’s just impossible. We’ll do what we can to help but it’s not easy.”

While much of the industry focus has fallen on the impact of Covid-19 on the payment (or not) of rights fees and the long-term impact on media-rights values, the effect on the sports production sector has been significant. Further along the chain, there are fears that production facility companies and outside broadcast truck suppliers (with no other business model to fall back on) will go out of business.

Despite the sizeable financial challenges posed by a ‘pause’ of live sports, Sunset+Vine has continued to take part in tender processes and is close to securing new long-term business over and above short-term programming solutions for broadcasters’ whose portfolios have been decimated.

Sunset+Vine also has a tender lodged with Channel 4 for Paralympic production work to help fill the summer scheduling void faced by the UK free-to-air broadcaster after the 12-month postponement of Tokyo 2020.

Foulser said: “We’re still talking to all the broadcasters and coming up with ideas. They’ve got so many proposals coming that are Covid-19 based so they’re almost suffocated by those. We’re taking a short-term look to get business at the moment but you’ve got to take a longer-term view for when things come back also.

“Broadcasters will have enough new programming until August or September and then they’re going to be struggling as well. Nobody is shooting anything in any meaningful way.”

The men’s ICC T20 World Cup in Australia still remains on the calendar (from October 18 to November 15) and Sunset+Vine is hopeful of being able to carry out its host broadcast duties to fulfil one of its more lucrative contracts.

Adapted BT Sport productions, return to empty stadiums

BT Sport’s Saturday-morning Early Kick-Off programme has continued to be produced live by Sunset+Vine.

The show is being filmed from presenter Jake Humphrey’s home with the set-up carried out by a Sunset+Vine engineer and the linking done over the 4G mobile phone network as guests join in from home. The director and the producer carry out their respective work in isolation.

Foulser said: “It’s a different technical challenge from the ones we’re used to with big OBs [outside broadcasts] and 60-odd people on site…

“…you have to simplify things a bit when you’re not all together [physically] just to make sure you get it on the air. This is not the way you’d want to make programmes but you learn from adversity and the elements we’re learning today we’ll put to good use in the future.”

Sunset+Vine has also continued to produce BT Sport’s Scottish Football Extra, Rugby Today and Rugby Tonight programmes with pundits and guests joining the show via video calls. Unlike Early Kick-Off, those shows are edited and put together on the same day as recording.

BT Sport is understood to be continuing to pay Sunset+Vine as per its contract to produce live and magazine programming for the pay-television broadcaster, helping to ease any cash flow issues. However, the broadcaster would be due back money in the case of postponed matches not being played or coming back with a curtailed production specification.

In addition, Sunset+Vine has picked up some business in producing programming for the likes of World Rugby and Red Bull Media House.

Meanwhile, Team Ineos’ first-ever ‘eRace’ on April 12 used the Zwift virtual training platform and was streamed live on the team’s YouTube channel. Riders using static bikes at home concluded the race by ascending the virtual L’Alpe d’Huez.

Sunset+Vine produced the coverage with four staff working from its headquarters in Hammersmith with social distancing measures in place. Talks are now being held with Team Ineos about another production, Foulser said.

Assessing the impact of the lockdown on the way Sunset+Vine operates, Foulser observed: “We are working but it’s in a very different way to the way we’re used to working. TV is a social business and all our offices are open planned.

“When your office is open, you can wander down the corridor and talk to somebody. Now you’ve got to set up a Zoom conference call and what would have taken a couple of minutes takes half an hour now.”

Foulser also anticipates a markedly different viewing experience when top-tier sport does resume with matches at empty stadiums the most likely scenario.

Shortly before the lockdown took hold, Sunset+Vine produced some Uefa Europa League matches without fans for BT, including Manchester United’s win in Austria over LASK Linz. The shouts of the players – including the swearing – were very audible in an atmosphere more akin to a training game.

Foulser predicted: “We’re going to have an issue when we go back to live sport in terms of whether it will be in empty stadiums or if crowds will be allowed in. Our view is that there won’t be crowds in stadiums for some time but there will be live sport.

“There’s an argument for the broadcasters that the value to them for the product without the crowds is far less than it is with a full stadium.”