Long reads

Broadcasting the Games – how the TV industry delivered the Olympics during a state of emergency

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games are well underway. 

In spite of controversies surrounding the Games – ranging from the PR fallout from arguably outdated decision making to public antipathy in the host country as it struggles against the Covid-19 pandemic – the showpiece celebration of sport has managed to take place.

This most unusual of Olympics has not just been a shakeup for the International Olympics Committee (IOC), but for broadcasters who are both managing the pandemic and delivering the most digital-forward Games ever.

And though there has been something of a negative backdrop in the build up, broadcasters, operators and technology suppliers have approached the Games with positivity and optimism.

Speaking to Digital TV Europe ahead of the Games, Discovery’s president of Sport Andrew Georgio set the “bold ambition to make this the most-watched Games ever across Europe.”

Discovery agreed a blockbuster deal with the IOC in 2015 worth €1.3 billion to be the exclusive broadcaster of the Olympics across most of Europe via Eurosport, with sublicencing deals in a number of countries with the likes of the BBC and France Télévisions. That deal kicked off with the 2018 Rio Games, but has come into full force this year, with the broadcaster using it as a means to push its nascent streaming service discovery+.

Georgio describes the streamer as “our number one priority as a business” and said that that discovery+’s launch was a “watershed moment” for the company.

“Discovery+ is the best place to watch the Olympics,” the exec said. “It is the only place in those markets to watch everything. We’re certainly focused on discovery+ as the primary destination for the Games.”

The international perspective

Across the Atlantic, rights holder NBCUniversal is taking a similar approach with its Peacock SVOD. 

The multifaceted service which thus far has established itself with Hollywood movies and iconic comfort TV like Fast & Furious and The Office has quietly built a formidable offering of live TV and sports. The streamer broadcast more than 175 English Premier League matches during the 2020/21 season, and tied up a US$1 billion deal to effectively purchase the pro wrestling service WWE Network earlier this year.

The Olympics however were always meant to be a launching off point for Peacock, which is why there were initial trepidations over a somewhat lightweight roster of content on launch in July 2020 when the Games were initially scheduled to take place. Though it has not hit the heights of Disney+’s 100 million-plus subscribers, Peacock has garnered a respectable total of 14 million users which it, like Discovery, will hope to boost over the Games.

But while discovery+ serves as a veritable smorgasbord of Olympic coverage at any one time, NBCU has spread its coverage across its traditional linear channels and Peacock. This approach led the broadcaster’s CEO Jeff Shell to assert last month that it would be the most profitable Games ever for NBCUniversal.

One company helping NBCU reach this aim is the Montreal-based television production and broadcasting equipment manufacturer Grass Valley. 

“Grass Valley has been supplying infrastructure solutions to NBC Olympics since the 2006 Torino Olympics, and we’ve had a long-standing partnership with them for many years,” says CTO Sydney Lovely. “In the past, NBC leveraged SDI-based solutions, but were looking to shift to an IP system for a number of reasons. Embracing HDR and 1080p HDR required significant infrastructure change to meet evolving production demands. Coupled with that, the sheer scale of the Olympics and the proliferation of viewing platforms puts pressure on production requirements, and so they needed a flexible, robust and future-proof IP system.

To make this shift, we worked with NBC to seamlessly upgrade its Stamford-based HQ with an IP-focused infrastructure while the facility was still in active use. GV Orbit provided the flexibility to integrate with its existing legacy control system, allowing them to gradually introduce new technology as part of a phased roadmap. We collaborated with NBC closely to come up with a creative way to implement and integrate new IP solutions seamlessly with their existing SDI technology. The flexibility of our system has been key to refreshing NBC’s infrastructure to meet the demands of the biggest live sports productions, such as Tokyo 2020.”

While NBCUniversal is delivering the Olympics via its linear channels and to boost Peacock sign-ups, the neighbour to the north is served by an entirely different broadcaster taking an alternative approach.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), a federal Crown corporation funded by the government. Much like the BBC in the UK, CBC is supported by public funding, and has largely served as the national face of the Games in modern history. Unlike the BBC however, CBC isn’t scaling down its coverage of the Olympics and is instead providing more content than ever for Canadian viewers.

“In Canada, the Olympic project is one of the largest productions in Canadian broadcast, and every Olympic Games it gets larger.” Chris Iwrin, head of production for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and executive producer at CBC says. “Canada has two official languages and so we produce coverage in both English and French. We produce over 1200 hours of French broadcast coverage and 1200+ hours of English. In addition to some Italian coverage, CBC will be adding an additional 8 Indigenous languages to our Opening Ceremony coverage as well as distributing it with American Sign Language (ASL) and Described Video.”

CBC is well aware of the digital needs of the event, and Irwin tells DTVE that the broadcaster “will stream over 2500 hours of original sport coverage on CBC’s dedicated Olympic Games website,” and for free on the CBC Olympics Games app and CBC Gem streaming service.

“There is nothing quite like it for hours, platforms, languages and coverage,” the producer says.

The varying impacts of the pandemic

It was of little surprise when the Olympics were pushed back by a year in 2020. The entire sporting world ground to a halt, and other major competitions such as the UEFA Euro 2020 tournament were delayed. While the Euros took place with fans in stadiums across European capitals as vaccination efforts continued, Japan was placed into a state of emergency weeks before the Olympics were scheduled to take place. 

It is a remarkable feat that the sporting world’s most international event has even been able to take place, but a cursory look at the competitors’ social media accounts will show the strict bubbles in which they have been placed while initial reporting around cardboard beds reinforced the strict rules athletes are to abide by. (The speculation that the beds were designed to prohibit multiple occupants has since been debunked.)

The IOC and the organising committee has had an extra year to ensure covid safety protocols, but CBC’s Irwin argues that those in the broadcasting world have not been afforded any extra benefit to preparations by virtue of the delay.

“Many would assume that delaying a year would have been a significant advantage to planning, but it was not the case,” he says. “What we saw was the impact it had on pre-production of athlete-centric content, as they were isolated themselves and unavailable, slowed down. Since the trials all stopped, qualification was postponed, so athletes and broadcasters didn’t know which athletes would even attend. 

“In many cases the information that helps make programming decisions and influences profile production just wasn’t available. Like every industry the pandemic impact was unpredictable – manufacturers of simple items couldn’t produce, so many parts of the project were hindered at odd times by unforeseen things.”

The producer however states that he is proud of his team in that they “never stopped looking for solutions,” but warns that it “remains to be seen” how short turnaround between this summer and the Beijing Winter Olympics in February 2022 “will affect all broadcasters’ plans.”

The situation is quite different for a number of vendors who say that their experiences of dealing with surges in household data usage and traffic has served them well to deal with the needs of the Olympics. 

“Ironically Covid-19 has meant more speed, more reliability and less cost,” says Edward Allfrey, VP of sales, EMEA for Video Networks at Synamedia. “Everything is deployed in private or public cloud. This has meant we are able to deploy remotely, incredibly quickly.”

UK-based video distribution tech provider Synamedia is well versed in dealing with demanding streaming operations, and its low-latency solutions will help to ensure that the action in Tokyo makes its way back home and around the world with minimal disruption. 

Allfrey explains: “Synamedia is involved in numerous projects to build out and improve streaming capacity, including a 5Tbps CDN upgrade for a customer in Europe, and similar projects across APAC and the Americas. However the biggest benefit for consumers in the OTT space will be the introduction of low latency streaming. Synamedia is now delivering Low Latency Streaming with DASH and HLS to a number of broadcasters including Yes in Israel. This technology is proving critical in persuading a core pay sports audience, as opposed to the casual sports fans, to move from DTH to OTT.” 

James Clark, director of global sales at geolocation security firm GeoComply, takes a similar approach, stating: “Having supported our customers who broadcast the Olympics in the past, we are used to huge spikes. So when everyone was stuck at home watching video last year, we were already prepared to be able to handle such a change in viewing patterns.”

Meanwhile, Eric Gallier, vice president, Video Solutions at Harmonic, surmises that, for the video streaming and cable access solutions provider: “The COVID-19 global health crisis did not have any meaningful impact on preparing for the games and will not affect the support we are providing to customers during the games.”

Progress and advancement

Difficulties of these unique games aside, the Olympics represent a unique opportunity to showcase new technologies in front of one of the largest audiences imaginable.

It is for this reason that Japanese public broadcaster is broadcasting seven Olympic disciplines in 8K domestically, translating to 200 hours of content in the resolution.

Japan has always been a pioneer in broadcasting technologies, but this has been a long time in the works for NHK. The broadcaster first started developing its Super Hi-Vision 8K TV system back in 1995, and while 8K TV adoption is still in its infancy it is a demonstration of the innovation going on at this year’s Games.

Discovery, for example, has dramatically upgraded its Eurosport Cube virtual studio in London that allows guests in Tokyo to appear and interact with their hosts as if they were in the same room. 

The Eurosport Cube studio

The technology made its debut for the 2020 US Open but this represents the highest-profile outing for the tech which promises – and has thus far delivered – high video quality and low latency.

Explaining the tech, Discovery’s SVP of Content and Production Scott Young describes this iteration of the Cube as the “next level” of virtual studios and said that while “there’s slight latency” it is drastically improved over something like a traditional off-site news broadcast. 

Young added that because of the “very large pipes we have here,” video quality is “not compressed in any way,” resulting in a “quite extraordinary environment.”

The broadcaster is transmitting 164 feeds with 11 in UHD back to London where the content is distributed to the linear Eurosport channels (including various pop-up channels for the event) and to discovery+.

CBC may not have the Cube studio, but Irwin’s production has leant on digital social interactions at a time when many around the world are still housebound.

“This year has been a leap forward in social and virtual interaction. With the pandemic restrictions still affecting movement and interaction in Canada, there is a lot of attention being placed on the interactive tools. Virtual depiction of social activity, User posted support content. It remains to be seen what will captivate the user’s attention but the goal is to connect the experience in Canada to the athletes in Tokyo and give the coverage a personal reflection of the excitement at home,” he says. 

Rather than rely on generic footage coming in from an international feed, CBC has placed renewed focus on filming the action itself and tracking the Canadian teams.

“We have never had so many Canadian teams qualify for the Olympics, it is both a blessing and a curse. Amazing for the audience and excitement of the programs – but much more challenging  to schedule on the main channels.”

To achieve this, Irwin explains: “CBC/Radio-Canada. dedicates a lot of resources to giving our coverage Canadian context. At venues such as aquatics, athletics and gymnastics we have cameras of our own to ensure that the Canadian athletes receive proper attention. We have crews on-site with reporters to hear from the athletes in interviews at key moments. Events of special interest to our audience are called by Canadian commentators either in Tokyo or at home in Canada to see that we tell the right stories at the right time to entertain our viewers.”

Innovations elsewhere take a less visible, but still monumentally important, form.

For Grass Valley’s Lovely, the biggest advancement has been the rapid adoption and implementation of HDR. He says: “Quality improvements with new HDR capabilities will of course be a highlight for viewers, but that volume of high quality content puts strain on production capabilities. The IP and HDR solutions that we provide are critical to helping NBC scale out their infrastructure to meet production demands and deliver content across a vast range of distribution outlets, including social media and digital platforms.”

Synamedia meanwhile is using the games as a means to experiment and showcase its latest tech, as Allfrey explains. “We are trialling technology for low latency fast channel change during the Olympics,” he says. “Fast channel change utilising HESP will allow new UX experiences when it comes to changing between multiple camera feeds, and multiple venues. It is time to stop thinking about “changing the channel” and instead think about how the UX can blend, merge and transition between all the different content available from a single venue or across the whole event.”

A further innovation that we are seeing bear fruit for the Olympics is the ease of launching new pop-up channels for limited times at little extra cost. These range from Eurosport launching a number of standalone pop-up channels for the duration of the games to more subtle variations of existing feeds.

In the case of the latter, Harmonic’s Gallier explains: “Another technical innovation we’ll see deployed by one of our customers during the games is the use of our VOS360 platform and streaming technologies to cost-effectively create a channel variant for each of the more than 50 delivery points or affiliates across the country. Each channel variant will have its own schedule of live Olympic events. Through these channel variants, different events and interviews can be broadcast to better engage targeted audiences. For example, one variant may show tennis while another shows swimming if these events are happening at the same time.”

This is an Olympic Games unlike any other. That’s not just because of the pandemic, though its impact on production, staging and athlete preparation should not go understated. From a broadcasting and consumption perspective however, it is set to be the most online Olympics ever.

OTT is not a new thing in 2021, but the fact that everyone from NBCUniversal and CBC in North America to Discovery in Europe have dedicated so much to ensuring the games are digital-forward exemplifies that streaming now operates in concert with, rather than as a complement to, traditional linear broadcasting. Viewers no longer rely on the curation of producers and editors; they can set the agenda and consume the Games in exactly the way they want to. In appropriate fashion, broadcasters and vendors have overcome a multitude of hurdles to deliver the Olympics, and the showpiece event will be enjoyed by millions around the world as a result.

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