Each year during July, Karl Vannieuwkerke and his team travel along the tracks of the ‘Tour de France’ to follow and discuss this well-known cycle race in a daily talkshow: ‘Vive le vélo’. Vive le vélo was first produced in 2005 and has grown into one of Belgium’s most successful sports talkshows with up to 1 million daily viewers during summer.
With a daily schedule of traveling (often through the mountains with a whole convoy of trucks and equipment), building up a set, doing research, following the tour, inviting guests, broadcasting the show, breaking down the set, getting some hours of sleep and traveling again, the production of Vive le vélo sounds quite a rollercoaster. Therefore, we met up with long-time showrunner: Thomas Swannet at Vooruit Gent, his hometown, to answer all of our curious questions.
Hi Thomas how are you?
Very good. I’m glad I can go back outside because I had covid. Two weeks ago I had to sit inside for 10 days so…
Oh I’m sorry to hear that! Thanks for eventually coming outside to the Vooruit to chat with us. Can you describe for us what you do?
Sure! In a few words: I am an editor-in-chief at Sporza. Sporza consists of two sides: we have the ‘actua’ side and the ‘live’ side and I work for the live side. So that means that I’m not occupied with the daily news, sports weekends,… but I’m resposible for all our live broadcasts about cycling, football, the talk shows that we make… All those things for television.
There are a few that always come back every year. One of the big projects is ‘Vive le vélo’ every summer. In addition, I work a lot with Karl Vannieuwkerke for other bike-race programs on site. I think around 5 to 6 shows per year. There’s also ‘Extra Time’, our football broadcasts in the Belgian Cup or in the Europa League,… Those are pretty much the main projects.
You just mentioned Vive le vélo, can you elaborate on the concept? What exactly is Vive le vélo and what’s your role in it?
Vive le vélo is a talk show that is made on location in France every evening during the tour. We are the team that travels around France in the tracks of the tour. We have a rule that we always set up our table within a radius of 50 kilometers from the finish so that we actually travel along with the tour without coming too close. The concept is that Karl Vannieuwkerke looks back on the tour-day for an hour every evening with three guests at the table: an expert, and then two people who are of course very interested in the tour and the race, but no ‘real race-connoisseurs’.
And you work in two teams right? One team that stays on site and one team that moves along?
There is an editorial team in Brussels that mainly provides the images and videos etc and the main team travels around France in the tracks of the tour.
And what is it like to work ‘remotely’ together? Is that efficient, is that challenging?
We have been doing this for 15 years now, of which I have been editor-in-chief for 13 years and that has become very efficient thanks to TinkerList. We used to be in a camper with two people: Karl Vannieuwkerke and I: I made a Word file, put it on a stick and gave it to Karl who then started working in it, he then gave it back,… Very inefficient actually and there were constant calls with the people in Brussels. I also have a permanent contact person there, a kind of coordinator in the editorial office to make clear what we want from video extracts, what we want from visual material from the tour, etc.
How would you describe a day at the Vive le vélo production?
It’s always a very busy day. The tour is every July and usually when there is no European Football Championship or something, we also do the full tour. Then we are actually traveling around France for three weeks and a few days. Of course the travelling takes a lot of time, we try to do it partly at night and partly in the morning because our rhythm is completely different from that of the cyclists. So we have our talk show in the evening and yes… that whole production or set has to be broken down and then we usually drive for a while at night. Depending on how much we still have to drive, we usually leave around 10 pm to 11 pm.
Those are long days and short nights.
Absolutely, that’s very intense but it’s so much fun! You’re on such a rollercoaster that those 3 weeks fly by.
What makes production so exciting?
To a large extent it’s the ‘summercamp feeling’. The team is quite numerous of course, there is a fairly large technical team that is involved because there’s a lot to be managed. We make it a point of honor to really bring a piece of France into the Belgian living room as beautiful as possible. So we always have a strong light crew with us, the cameramen are there, the production team,… The content team is actually quite limited in France, so if you count everyone, we are on the road with about 30-35 people every day and yes… you quickly create a certain atmosphere of a scouting camp.
You actually became a group of friends?
Yeah we became a close group. Because you also notice that a lot of people want to come back year after year and that it’s one of the best projects for them to be a part of.
Do you also sleep in tents?
No no not in tents. We are a whole convoy with a few trucks, with a camper as an editorial room, a few cars,… so with a whole convoy but we do sleep in hotels. Every night after the program, we travel a bit towards the location of the next day and usually we have a hotel on the side of the highway or something that is fairly easily accessible, where we can also easily park the trucks.
You also have to do your research, how does that happen?
Yes, of course. We prepare the content with a very limited team: Karl Vannieuwkerke, my colleague Leendert and myself, we are on site in France and put together the program. Then we have a team of 3-4 core people in Brussels who make the edits and such. So yes, the files of the guests are prepared; either in advance or during the tour by someone in Brussels. But it is actually up to Leendert and me to ensure that there is a program ready every evening in France.
What are Vive le vélo’s assets?
The big advantage of the tour is that there is a ride every day, so that you get fresh content every day. That is of course a huge asset of the program that contributes to that ‘rollercoaster’. Something can happen every day. Sometimes the tour was quite boring and it’s just a sprinter who wins. But then, for example, if Mark Cavendish makes it to a third stage, then there is also a story attached to it… It’s always a matter of looking for cool ideas to keep it fresh.
Another asset of Vive le vélo is that we go further than just the race: we are a program intended for the whole family. That is unique! We are one of the few sports programs that 50% men and 50% women watch. So we try to make the conversations interesting for the real race enthusiast, but it is also the intention that people who are less interested in race want to watch. Our tourist section where we include a piece of France in the broadcast is a way of attracting that section. People should really feel that they are on a journey with us and sit with us at the table in the evening. That’s what we’re trying to achieve.
Is that also what you are most proud of about the production?
That’s one of the things because it’s a very delicate line that we’ve managed to handle almost perfecftly for over 15 years now. You can make it very accessible for the ‘non-race-enthusiast’, but then the ‘race-enthusiast’ will drop out, which is absolutely not the goal. We remain primarily a talk show about the tour. It is a difficult balance, but I am indeed proud that we have managed to walk that line for so long and the viewing figures prove it. Even though the competition is not that big in the summer, we still manage to reach up to 700-800k viewers per night and when the tour gets very exciting, up to 1 million viewers in a July month.
Wow that’s strong! How do you feel after such a broadcast?
I think it’s the same after every talk show… The choice of guests is super important because we always try to create some kind of chemistry at that table. This is often easy by inviting 2 people who already know each other. For example: I remember Wim Helsen and Bart Cannaerts automatically clicked at the table, two comedians who are also friends, which is great for a talk show. But often, the guests don’t know each other and are selected because they are expected to have a click. And if they effectively have chemistry during the program that improves their flow, is a very satisfying feeling.
You also work with TinkerList as you mentioned. How would you describe your experience with TinkerList?
Yes, as I just said: it has really been a very big step forward for us. Both for the editorial team in Brussels and for our small main team in France, it is a major improvement, especially because communication between each other can be much easier.
For example, one of the great advantages is that we can easily attach ‘readers’ to the rundown: short 20-30 second images that Karl has to talk about, so that we can already view them on the spot and adjust them during the course of the day. In the past they were just forwarded. The moment we booked a jet time, they were sent from Brussels to – which still happens – LSM in France and we only saw them for the first time in the evening during rehearsal. Now, from the moment they are edited, they are attached to the rundown and we can view and adjust them. This is a great advantage, which means that we can also update the texts more quickly in function of the image.
That’s one aspect. It’s also super cool that you can customize almost an entire rundown to your own program because there are so many options. We also spent some time in the beginning with Erik and Charlotte to get that right. For example, I remember that Karl really likes to have his questions in capital letters and a button was easily added that allows you to put lowercase letters in capital letters directly. Those are the simple things.
How does TinkerList specifically affect your job as editor-in-chief?
Especially the ease with which I now put together the entire rundown with Leendert, my colleague. We work very well together because we have been doing this for several years now. TinkerList makes this a lot easier because you can immediately follow what the other person is doing, see what he was working on, which piece of text he is preparing.
Also the ease of communicating with the people in Brussels: via the messages, just by putting a container in it, they also know ‘Okay yes, we have to provide such images’. If it is not clear they will send a message or give us a call. So that’s very easy.
When new people in the team start working with TinkerList, how does it go? How do they blend in?
Pretty easy actually. It is a very user-friendly program. To give a concrete example: we now use TinkerList for Extra Time as well. Frank Raes will be doing his last Extra Time broadcast in 2 weeks and Aster Nzeyimana will take over next year. He has no experience with TinkerList whatsoever, but I showed him briefly this week, I think in 2 minutes, what TinkerList is and he will now look at it a bit on his own. I’m sure that when we restart in January, he’s going to love it. Very user-friendly program.
So it’s more of a ‘experiment-in-TinkerList-and-it’ll-sort-itself-out-approach?‘
Well yes, also because I know that Aster is a young man who knows how to work with such things. But Frank Raes, who will soon be retiring -we used to work with a different program- was in the beginning like: “Wow TinkerList, what is that?'”. Many people are afraid beforehand if they do not know the software, but everyone is very quickly convinced of TinkerList that it simply makes your work easier.
I also think the great advantage of the program is that everyone can really use it for what they need. With Frank it’s mostly about text. So if we clearly indicate “Look, these are your text boxes”, he knows “Okay, I have to work in that”, and someone who works in direction will know “I especially need that container”,… You can adjust the view depending on what you need it for.
What was it like working with TinkerList for the first time?
That was 5 years ago for Vive le vélo. What I really appreciated at the time, we were at our first broadcast at Lake Gérardmer in the Vosges, Erik and Charlotte came all the way from Belgium to assist us. We knew what we had to do because of our training, but if there were questions or anything else, they were ‘standby’. They spent a day with us at the lake and we also ate very bad fries and a really bad hamburger at a dirty restaurant nearby. (laughs)
You do discover beautiful places, don’t you?
`For sure! That’s one of the great things about Vive le vélo. Of course the production team has already been on site in the preparatory phase, but a very large part of the team does not know where we will end up. It is always nice to turn up a driveway of a castle with the camper and see “WOW! We can spend a day here at the castle or on the square in this city or a wonderfully beautiful mountain landscape”.
Do you have a take-away as an experienced editor-in-chief for colleagues in the same position?
Don’t hesitate if you are not familiar with TinkerList yet. It’s something new, but don’t hesitate to take the step!
So you would recommend it?
Yes I would absolutely recommend it. We have already worked with several programs: from Word to Google Drive to TinkerList, a huge step forward. For the news programs at VRT, we mainly work with iNews and I find TinkerList a much easier program to work with, especially in the role that I have. `
Do you also have recommendations for us?
Yes I have that too! I think I’ve already mentioned it to Erik. What I miss in the software is that when you’re working in the rundown that is completely open, you lose the overview a bit. It’s getting too big and too tall. It would be a great convenience to be able to put both the expanded rundown and the collapsed rundown side by side. But Erik said they were working on that and that it would also be launched in the summer… but I think it might be a little later.
They do listen well, don’t they?
They are definitely listening! The support is also very good: if we simply ask a question via the button at the bottom right of the software, we always get an answer very quickly. I am a satisfied customer 🙂
Thank you for your time, for your story and your constructive criticism.
Until next time!
Until next time and good luck!