Thorsten Schmitt had no idea when he went to work at the headquarters of German public broadcaster ZDF in Mainz on Wednesday that within twenty-four hours his own network would be hailing him on the air as a hero.
But ZDF was showing the Germany-Turkey semifinal that day and Schmitt’s ingenuity would prevent a sporting tragedy of untold proportions for German football fans watching the match. And all it took was a network smart card the size of a credit card to tap into the Swiss television feed while the rest of Europe was out of luck.
“He saved 30 million German viewers from despair,” ZDF managing editor Andreas Wunn told The Local.
Unbeknownst to frustrated viewers at the time, some combination of torrential rain, lightning and thunder knocked out the power supply to the UEFA’s International Broadcast Centre in Vienna and the game feed to the entire world was knocked out. Schmitt, engineer to the network management, was in the Situation Room with Wunn and other top people at the time. He kept his head and tried to think of a solution.
“All of a sudden there was no noise in the Situation Room, and I looked to the television in the room and saw: No signal,” Schmitt said in a telephone interview. “Everyone in the room was shouting: What’s this?”
But Schmitt was thinking. Specifically, he knew Swiss TV would not have lost its signal, since it was not routed through the tournament’s broadcast centre. The question was how to tap into the Swiss feed.
“Switzerland television is coded,” he said. “But we have a second television station here in Mainz called 3sat and 3sat is always broadcasting in the evening signals from Switzerland and so we have the possibility to receive a signal from Switzerland with coding, but we could do the decoding with a smart card from Swiss television.”
If they had one, Schmitt knew, it would be two flights down in the technicians’ room. He took off running, he says, not wanting to explain what he was doing.
“I was thinking, ‘I have to look in the room to see if I can find it,’” he said. “So I ran down two floors into this room and checked the receivers for receiving satellite transmissions.”
He found the receiver with the smart card that could decode the signal. There was only one problem: ZDF had received no authorization from Swiss TV to use the signal, including the SF2 logo. But there was no time to get it., so the decision was made to go ahead, someone hit a button and the record-setting audience of more than 30 million people in Germany could see the game again – just in time to see Miroslav Klose’s goal put Germany up 2-1.
“I decided here in the Situation Room to broadcast the Swiss signal,” said Wunn. “We were the only ones in Europe who only had a six-minute gap. The others had a ten-minute gap and they missed a goal. We didn’t miss a goal.”
The BBC did what ZDF had done before Schmitt had his good idea, showing a partly blank screen and using audio play-by-play. In France it was worse. As the International Herald Tribune reported, “viewers on the channel TF1 were subjected to a rerun of a news report on the woeful performance of the French national team, which failed to advance beyond the group stage of the tournament.”
The game and the interruption were the talk of Germany the next day, and ZDF – aware many viewer were likely blame the broadcaster for the cock-up out of its control – led its main nightly news programme with a behind-the-scenes look at how Schmitt saved the day.
“The technicians didn’t know if what they were doing was even allowed, but the football broadcast was more important,” the reporter narrating the piece said before ending with words intended to inspire confidence. “Thorsten Schmitt, the saviour of millions of fans, is back on duty.”
German fans can only hope ZDF’s main public broadcasting rival ARD won’t face the same challenges on Sunday when it shows Germany taking on Spain in the final.