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August 14, 2012

Project Watch: How on earth do you broadcast the Olympics?

There are fewer more complicated logistical undertakings than broadcasting the Olympics. How is it done in the modern tech environment?

By Allan Swann

The world’s largest event is over for another four years. But while the efforts of our athletes on the track is admired and not soon to be forgotten, the unsung heroes that pulled off an astonishing logistical and technological feat in bringing it to our screens deserve a smidgen of respect too.

The London 2012 Olympics has been a success from a broadcast and technology standpoint, with some 51.9 million UK viewers watching the event on their TVs, alongside 106 million requests for video content online – including those viewing it on their smartphones or iPads.

Much has been discussed about the strains the Olympics has placed on the national technological infrastructure (see CBR’s feature here), but what about the initial creation and distribution of content?

The scale is unmatched, said Malcolm Cowan, BBC Sport Olympic 2012 Lead Editor, who has worked on every Olympics since 1992.

"In order to satisfy the BBC ambition to transmit such a huge amount of content, we had to build the biggest operation we’ve ever mounted for a sporting event," he said.

All the Rights Holding Broadcasters (RHBs) take their feeds from the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) broadcaster, Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS). 147 RHBs represent the 209 territories across the world, reaching a potential audience of 4.8 billion – a massive undertaking.

BBC's Malcom Cowan, BBC Sport Olympic 2012 Lead Editor
Malcolm Cowan, BBC Sport Olympic 2012 Lead Editor

The International Broadcast Centre, or ‘Massive Tin Shed’ as Cowan calls it, covers 42,000 square feet, and BBCs floor space is two thirds larger than its Beijing real estate. BBC had 765 staff working on the broadcasting side for the event across the entire UK, while as much work as is feasible is sent to BBC’s new offices in Salford’s Media City.

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The build time for the entire project was seven weeks.

There are 94 fields of play (however, not every one is covered or has a live feed – i.e. tennis and sailing), with 94 feeds (with different audio streams, such as crowd and commentary), put down to 48 distribution feeds. 24 of these streams are then sent to Salford for logging, adaption for online and mobile video streaming and other interactive operations, such as complex graphics. BBC iPlayer operations were also run out of the Salford office.

"The reason it goes to Salford is that [the broadcast] costs a lot of money," said Cowan.

"When all you need is people bashing at terminals, it can easily be done in Salford – its a waste of time and money in the Olympic village."

For some of the minor events, the company also used ‘off-tune’ commentary – that is, commentators offsite, such as Salford, commentating on the event from video feeds to save costs.

The BBC added cameras to supplement the OBS feed where it thought more detail might be needed – and where Britain might score more medals, such as in Weymouth for the sailing (onsite broadcast office) and it built its own ‘BBC cabin’ at Eton Dorney for the rowing.

While this set up would be impressive for any large event, the Olympics isn’t just a 2-3 hour one-off, like the Superbowl, or a single match at the Football World Cup – its an ongoing broadcast, for more than 12 hours a day, for 17 days – worth around 5600 hours of coverage (See Figure 1).

BBC's Olympic Figures
Fg1: BBC’s Olympic Figures

"When the UK won the Olympics, the BBC decided that we would put as much on the air as possible. There was a strong drive to engage the public as much as possible across all platforms," Cowan said.

"As well as our HD, 3D, interactive and web offerings we are also showing Super Hi Vision at selected venues. This in collaboration with NHK and OBS. It offers 16 times the resolution of HD."

Super Hi Vision, also known as Ultra HDTV, is 7680x4320P, roughly 16 times the resolution of 1080P HDTV and nearly the same video quality as IMAX. It was shown at locations such as the Hyde Park Live Site. The bandwidth required to stream this kind of huge data load (400mbps on average) was so huge, BBC’s R&D division, combined with OBS and NHK decided to cut a deal to use the UK’s education and research network, JANET. This level of detail is unviewable on any retail hardware devices.

Cowan says that broadcasting in 3D was dropped early on in the process, because of limited demand and the added strain on the infrastructure. 3D generally doubles the bandwidth required, as its is basically two images being broadcast simultaneously (the left eye and the right eye).

It also decided to drop live Dolby 5.1 coverage for similar reasons – its too much unnecessary data flowing down the pipes.

"We just can’t monitor that level of input. There’s just too many audio tracks."

On average Cowan estimates, including audio and video, 32 feeds were coming in from each venue, with potentially 2-3 sets from each event – for example, the event itself, post race interviews, and the medal ceremony – all of which needed to be filtered, organised and archived.

Avid provided much of the video editing and workflow technology for the BBC and NBC’s coverage of the games, which this time round had a big online video and mobile component to go with its traditional video editing suites.

Avid’s VP of Sales for EMEA, Tom Cordiner, told CBR that while the Olympics is always challenging, Avid’s R&D departments ensure that multi-platform, and multi-channel solutions are a key part of its offering.

Avid's Tom Cordner
Avid’s Tom Cordiner

"Avid has been focused on developing the tools and plug-ins to maximise the opportunities for our multi-platform content distribution," he said.

"We have built in spec to enable our clients to monetise and syndicate content across a wide range of platforms, including mobile and online," he said.

AVID’s Interplay Media Asset Management (MAM) system oversaw the entire workflow from NBC, from OBS, to EVS broadcast equipment through the composition tools (such as shot selection, editing) and out to distribution. It also incorporates archiving, vital for replay reels and long term big data concerns.

Further Reading:

Calling the Shots: CBRs feature about Avid and Sports ‘Big Data’

Catching some air: What UK businesses can learn from the Olympics

How did the first ‘mobile olympics’ stack up?

CBR’s Editor Jason Stamper interviews BT about the Olympics’ fibre infrastructure and what it has learned from the experience

The Olympics and social media

Why remote working didn’t work during the Olympics


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