Interview: Matt Sheahan
Matt Sheahan, one of sailing’s most widely respected journalists, recently left his role as Racing and Technical Editor at Yachting World magazine after 24 years, to join British sports TV production house Sunset+Vine as their Head of Performance Sailing.
Topping the list of responsibilities in his new job is the production of a new monthly magazine show aimed squarely at the global sailboat racing community. The 30-minute programme takes its name from yacht racing’s recently rebranded governing body, World Sailing (formerly the International Sailing Federation or ISAF), who are funding the project.
Just a week into the role and almost before he could properly get his deck shoes under the desk, we collared Sheahan to quiz him about the move from print to TV and ask what fans can expect from sailing’s new flagship show under his tutelage.
Sail Racing Magazine: This must have been a big move for you after nearly a quarter of a century at Yachting World. What made you make the leap to TV?
Matt Sheahan: I suppose it is a big move because I’m going from a print magazine to producing a TV show. But, in fact, the two roles are very similar. At the end of the day, my job is telling stories about sailboat racing; that’s what I have always done with Yachting World and I’m excited to be doing it in this new role.
The language of TV is rather different, as I am discovering already, but it doesn’t take too much to translate it all into magazine-speak in my head as I try to understand how it all works.
SRM: Talk us through the scope of the new show and how it came to fruition?
MS: Well, it’s a monthly magazine show, it’s called World Sailing, and it goes out to 36 broadcasters in 177 territories around the world. It covers all aspects of racing and it’s sponsored by what was the International Sailing Federation, or ISAF, and is now World Sailing.
The initiative was set up between World Sailing and the TV production company Sunset+Vine. They have employed me as the Head of Performance Sailing and in that role one of my main responsibilities is to produce the new World Sailing show.
You may remember the show Seamaster Sailing that has been aired around the world for many years. That show was produced by Sunset+ Vine up until the end of 2015 and now we are using the same distribution channels that Seamaster Sailing had to launch this new programme.
Sunset+Vine have worked with World Sailing for many years. They have delivered their live TV output and a huge amount of broadcast work for them on a contract basis. So the relationship between the two organisations is very well established.
World Sailing are doing a lot of new things this year in the wake of their rebranding from ISAF. They are doing live TV coverage at the Olympic classes Sailing World Cup events, they have a brand new website, they have some key new people on board and generally they have a new focus. Part of that new vision was the production of a new monthly TV show and Sunset+Vine were the obvious choice to deliver it for them.
SRM: Who is the show aimed at?
MS: The show is aimed at a broad sailing audience where, in time we aim to cover the complete spectrum of racing from dinghy racing to super maxis, amateur to professional. With World Sailing as backers there is huge potential for the show going forward. Clearly, the world governing body is closely associated with Olympic sailing, especially this year, but the reality is that there are few areas of the sport that World Sailing is not involved in which will give the show superb access and help to reflect the broad nature of the sport rather than focusing on niche areas.
But I think it's also very important that we produce a programme that appeals to people who don't know about sailing. We have a superb, visually stimulating sport that encompasses the widest range of ages and abilities and therefore have plenty to shout about. personally I love telling stories about our sport and have always liked trying to explain it to friends who don't necessarily follow sailing.
A good story told well can travel well beyond the enthusiasts, just look at what happened in the UK alone after the America's Cup in 2013.
SRM: What do you think you bring to the role?
MS: I have come into it as someone who brings a lot of knowledge of the racing scene from a journalistic point of view. My role is to look at the season ahead, decide what events we should be covering, identify what stories we should be telling and then work out the best way to tell them.
Over the last few years one of the things that has been going really well for Yachting World has been the video output; things like short videos and the mini documentaries we put on YouTube.
There is definitely an appetite from the sailing audience for that sort of thing. I was responsible for a lot of those videos at Yachting World and saw the audience response they received, so this new job is a great step that enables me to take it to a whole other level.
SRM: What kind of content can viewers expect to see on the new World Sailing show?
MS: It’s a magazine show, so, just like you would have in a print magazine, there will be some chunky feature stories. I also want to make sure we have some sailor profiles; we will look at individual classes of boats, and there will be a news section each month.
One thing that we are going to include, that I wouldn’t have thought of without our association with World Sailing, is their Emerging Nations Programme. Some of the footage and stories that are coming out of that initiative are fantastic, so that is going to be a regular feature in the show.
It’s easy to get drawn into the mainstream of racing and you think you are up to speed with it all. Then you see and hear what is going on in somewhere like Mozambique and other far flung places in the world and you find these incredible stories.
This year there will be quite a focus on the Olympics as that is the big gig for our sponsor, but our aim is to cover all aspects of sailing, right from dinghies to big boats and whatever else is out there going on racing-wise.
One of the beauties of having World Sailing as a sponsor is that there aren’t many events that aren’t World Sailing sanctioned, so the scope we have got to go at is enormous.
SRM: Working in a TV company must be a very different environment to a print magazine? How are you settling in?
MS: As we speak, I have only been in the job for a week, but what stood out for me straight away is that, although the language and the technology are a bit different, how similar the processes are between print magazine and TV production.
One of the biggest differences between being a written journalist and working in TV is that, when you are writing, you have the luxury of being able to fill in the gaps. You can do the interviews, get the sense of what’s going on, get the direct quotes and you can work around anything you are missing to complete the story. In TV, if you haven’t got the shot and they haven’t said it on camera, then you don’t have a story.
What that means is there’s a lot more planning that goes into telling a story on TV. The amount of planning that goes on before you pick up a camera is massive compared to producing a written story.
A long time ago now, I worked with Top Gear as their sailing presenter when they had Top Gear Waterworld. I worked with Andy Wilman who was the executive producer of Top Gear until quite recently. It was one of the steepest learning curves I have ever been on, but the experience was fascinating. That’s when I learned what a staggering amount of time goes into preparation on a TV show and that lesson has stuck with me to this day.
Making a TV show is about genuinely understanding what your story is, and then it is about putting pictures with words.
Way, way, back when I first joined Yachting World, I would write my copy, hand it in and someone else would match the pictures to it. Until the magazine came out you would never see the pictures and how they worked with your story. Fortunately, I joined at the tail end of that era and at the start of the era of sophisticated digital design software and we were able to look at the words and the pictures together to tell the story better.
Now it very much feels to me like I am making this transition from print to TV at exactly the right time.
SRM: How will you operate on a day to day basis?
MS: Like any magazine editor or journalist, my job is to go out there and find the story. Once I have identified a story, I then need to work out how we are going to cover that story – how we are going to tell it – and then to go out and find the content.
We are not going to have a large roving team of cameramen and reporters travelling the world. The thing that makes this sort of show possible is that there is so much more material out there now. So many more events and regattas now hire TV crews to produce content they can either put online or broadcast for their own purposes.
You have all that sort of high end stuff and then, at the other end of the spectrum, you have thousands of people out there with GoPros and other little sporty high quality video cameras. That means we are seeing an amazing volume of raw footage coming off the boats with shots and angles we haven’t ever seen before.
This wealth of available footage is what makes producing this new show so exciting. I don’t think it would have been possible before now, because you would have had to pay for a film crew to go out there and create all this content. Now it’s a case of sifting through all that material and using it to help tell the story.
Then, on the other side of the whole thing there are smart phones and tablets and fast mobile broadband and Wi-Fi, which means that people can actually watch the sort of content we are producing.
In the past, to see a show like this people would have to watch it on TV or maybe download it to their computer; now people can stream it to their mobile devices and watch it anywhere.
That’s why I think this new show is well timed and I see it as a huge opportunity to help sell the sport of sailing.
SRM: What do you see as your biggest challenges in your new role?
MS: Although I have made my reputation as a print journalist, I have been involved in TV for many years now as a script-writer, a consultant and on some occasions as a presenter. This, though, is the first time I get to see the whole process from front to back and understanding all the intricacies of that process will take some time.
The truth is, had we been having this conversation 10 years ago, the transition from being a print and web writer to TV producer would probably have felt like a much bigger step. But, over those 10 years, with the advent of things like YouTube and social media, the print magazine world has steadily converged with TV. Plus, TV shows now all have websites and social media presences, so the people who make them have had to do more and more writing.
So now it doesn’t feel so much like a massive change - more like an evolution or a natural progression.
SRM: Tell us more about the other aspects of your role as head of performance sailing at Sunset+Vine?
MS: My pet project is the monthly show, but it’s not my exclusive role.
My general role is to provide technical sailing expertise within the company across a number of different activities. That means I operate in quite a few different modes depending on the project concerned.
As an example, in the case of the Sailing World Cup Olympic classes events around the world, I’m there as a pit lane reporter for the live TV show that Sunset+Vine produce for World Sailing. As such, I talk to the athletes as they go afloat before the medal races and again when they come back ashore.
In the office this week I was working with Shirley Robertson on her CNN show Mainsail (another Sunset+Vine production), bouncing ideas around between us for future shows.
Then there are other clients, like the Extreme Sailing Series, for example, that Sunset+Vine produce all the TV output for. This year is going to be a big year for the Extreme Sailing Series as they move from Extreme 40 catamarans to much higher performance foiling GC32 cats, so there are plenty of discussions around how we make sure the TV coverage is the best it can be.
SRM: How will you judge if the World Sailing show is a success?
MS: One of the most exciting things about this digital age we are working in is that, as journalists, we have never had so much instant information about how many people are reading, watching or listening to the stories we are telling.
Traditionally, the way of gauging success or not of a print publication would be based on the ABC audited circulation figures. The problem was, for a monthly publication you wouldn’t get the figures for a least two months after each issue. That was for the domestic sales – the international sales figures came in months and months later.
Nowadays, when you post an article online and link to it on social media you can often see within minutes how successful it is. You can use Google Analytics and other tools to see very quickly what content works and what doesn’t.
Sending the show out to 36 broadcasters around the world is a little bit like sending out bundles of magazines to distributors around the world. You are not going to know answers until quite a lot later on, I suspect. But, when it comes to the online version of the show and its social media presence, we are going to get feedback straight away, I think.
Online, people aren’t afraid to tell you whether they like it or they don’t, so you have this tremendous feedback system on what you publish. In the last few years I have felt so much more engaged with the audience than ever before and that is a real buzz.
I am very much looking forward to building a strong following for the new show among racing fans and developing a relationship and a dialogue with that audience.