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01 January 2012

How do you go about mounting the UK's biggest ever broadcast operation? Tim Dams talks to the people in charge of televising the Olympic Games to find out

From July 27th, an estimated four billion people around the world will tune in for what’s likely to be the biggest broadcasting event in history – the London 2012 Olympic Games.

The scale and complexity of mounting such a broadcast operation is mind-boggling: over 5,000 hours of Olympic coverage will be provided to viewers in around 200 countries and regions worldwide via some 20,000 media staff who will work from an International Broadcast Centre (IBC) big enough to fit five jumbo jets. For the duration of the Games, the IBC will be the biggest broadcast production centre in the world.

The host broadcast

Coverage of the Games is overseen by Madrid-based Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS), which is the host broadcaster responsible for providing neutral coverage to every rights holding broadcaster around the world. The OBS was set up in 2001 by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which owns the Games, with the aim of providing a continuity of production expertise and standards for successive Olympic Games. It’s run by veteran Olympic broadcast producer Manolo Romero.

“We provide the core, unbiased coverage of the Games,” says head of OBS London Paul Mason. “Because it has to be accessible to the world’s top broadcasting nations, the coverage has to be top quality and as good as anything they produce.”
The concept of a single host broadcaster for the Olympic Games is a long-standing one. After all, it wouldn’t make sense for some 140 broadcasters from around the world to shoot their own separate coverage in each venue; if they did, it would leave hardly any room for the spectators.

London 2012, however, marks the first time that OBS is in name the host broadcaster of the Olympic Summer Games. In Beijing, by contrast, the host coverage was provided as a joint venture between OBS and the Chinese organising committee.
The fact that coverage of the London Games is being managed entirely by a Spanish company has raised some heckles in the UK production community, which takes pride in its global reputation for producing sports events. Jeff Foulser, chairman of top sports producer Sunset + Vine, comments: “In a country where the production community is as vibrant as it is over here, it’s just sad that we don’t have more of a stake in our own Games. It should be our Games, we should all have a stake in it really.” He adds that having one company permanently in charge of coverage, without competitors, isn’t healthy in terms of innovation either.

OBS, however, contracts in production teams with recognised expertise in their field to provide its host coverage of key sports. The BBC, for example, has been asked to provide all the coverage for sports such as tennis, rowing and football. Cuba’s ICRT, meanwhile, takes care of volleyball coverage while Japan’s Fuji TV looks after judo (see box, below).

The OBS operation is huge and involves years of meticulous planning and considerable attention to detail. Its host footage is captured using some 1,000 cameras, 50 OB trucks and 5,500 production staff (including 1,200 broadcast students who will gain invaluable work experience on the Games). OBS is also responsible for taking the shell of the newly constructed International Broadcast Centre, and fitting it out both for its own purposes, and for the rights holding broadcasters. This includes preparing the master control area, known at the CDT, which takes in the feeds from all of the venues. Mason comments: “The telecoms network is extensive and has to be resilient. One of the things that we are absolutely clear on is that the OBS feed has to be the one that broadcasters can rely on. A lot of planning goes in to that.” The OBS is also responsible for the large server in the IBC that will record the games. In Beijing the server held about 1,500 hours of HD footage, with the rest in SD. But for London it will hold the complete games in HD.

Mason, formerly chief technical co-ordinator, international operations, at the BBC, points to a number of key challenges in producing the Games, which he has been preparing for since his appointment in 2009 as the first employee at OBS London.
“The scale is one aspect of it,” he says, explaining that a multi-sport event like the Olympics has to be pulled together and go through a single quality control process in the broadcast centre if it is not going to look like a series of separate OBs.
There are also multiple factors to take into account, such as negotiating with the Civil Aviation Authority and NATS to allow aerial coverage of the road races in a way that doesn’t interfere with air traffic at Heathrow, or working through LOCOG with Ofcom to ensure sufficient broadcast spectrum, which is always tight in a big city.

Then there are the broadcast innovations to consider, such as arranging for parallel 3d coverage of some events and super hi-definition coverage of others. This year the core coverage is also entirely in HD with 5.1 surround sound, and Mason points to a dramatic increase in the number of super slo-mo cameras which are now a crucial component in sports coverage.

The BBC’s coverage
Within the UK, the neutral OBS feed will then be taken by the rights holding broadcaster, the BBC, which will customise it specifically for British audiences.

Dave Gordon, the head of major events for BBC Sports, says: “There is a huge amount of customisation for the audience. We provide the commentary, the presentation, the interviews, the features, the context, the explanations, the graphics, the guides.” The BBC’s line-up for the 2012 Olympics will see Match of the Day presenter, Gary Lineker, anchoring BBC1’s primetime evening coverage, with Sue Barker in the late afternoon slot and Jake Humphrey, Hazel Irvine and Clare Balding in the studio to guide viewers through the day.

Gordon has worked at the BBC for 40 years, and London 2012 will be his tenth Olympics. He says his key priority is a “ruthless focus on our domestic audience.” And this year it means offering up every single session of every sport every day to viewers. No sport will be left without coverage.

Viewers will be able to watch up to 24 screens of sport every day, either on BBC1 or BBC3, on radio, online, on mobiles and on up to five red button screens. “We are going for this all embracing approach where it is all about what we offer on every platform and every device,” says Gordon.

In all, he estimates that the BBC will make 2,500 hours of sporting content available to viewers. By comparison, the BBC aired 300 hours of the Sydney Olympics in 2000, and used the red button for the first time at a summer Olympics in Athens in 2004.
Gordon acknowledges the added pressure of having the games in the BBC’s back yard. He says: “It is different because it is more multifaceted. There is more expectation so the offer is bigger. We are also doing a lot around the Olympics in terms of complementary programming as well as the torch relay and the cultural festival. There’s an enormous amount of extra content that we are making in the build up to the Games as well.”

He’s confident that the BBC team is on track to deliver its coverage, despite facing up to key challenges such as the move of the BBC Sports department to Salford during the lead up to the Olympics (although the core Olympics planning team remains in London). “We’ve a significant number of people who will have worked on Beijing, Athens and Sydney. We’re very lucky that we have a terrific team pulling it all together with lots of experience.”

The impact on UK production

London 2012 promises to have a huge impact on the UK production sector, creating a massive demand for experienced production staff and facilities before and during the Games.

A large number of international broadcasters will set up their own production operations for the Games, hiring in UK freelance crews, production facilities and OB trucks. In fact, the Games is such a big event that no single country can resource it on its own. Even China had to ship in OB trucks to cater for the Beijing Olympics.

Roger Mosey, the BBC’s director of London 2012, says: “We are finding people are booked three or four times already.” He adds that there is “a massive demand for skilled camera operators and technicians of all kinds,” and that OB truck availability is incredibly limited through the summer. There’s also likely to be a shortage of skilled engineering talent during the Games. “People who can engineer these big events are few and far between and are really at a premium.”

This sentiment is widely echoed elsewhere. Olly Wiggins, director of camera and crewing outfit S+O Media, thinks the Olympics will provide a major boost to the broadcast industry with a “huge demand” for kit and crew. “Of course some foreign broadcasters will bring their own personnel and equipment, but it’s not always feasible for productions to freight over everything.” Wiggins anticipates that “freelancers will be booked up pretty early and those with specialist skills will have a very productive month. I expect us to be very busy with pre-booked shoots and of course the last minute camera hires to UK and foreign crews.”

The Olympics is also likely to leave its mark on the industry, both in terms of an improved broadcast infrastructure around the Olympic Park and on the skills of UK production staff. Dave Gordon concludes: “The opportunity to work on such a major event will be a great legacy for this country’s technical talent. In terms of refreshing and recharging the industry in years to come, it is very good news.”

London 2012: the broadcast challenge

• An estimated 4bn people will watch the Games
• The host broadcaster, OBS, will provide 5,000 hours of core HD coverage to rights holding broadcasters
• OBS will capture the Olympics with 1,000 HD cameras, 50 OB trucks and 5,500 production staff
• The hub for the Olympics broadcast operation is the International Broadcast Centre/Main Press Centre, which will be the largest single broadcast production centre in the world for the duration of the Games. The IBC will host 20,000 broadcasters, photographers and journalists. Its 12,000sq m catering village will serve 50,000 meals a day. The steel frame of the IBC is big enough to house five jumbo jets placed wing tip to wing tip.
• London 2012 is set to be the first Olympics to be captured with a fully file-based, HD workflow. Many events will also be captured in 3d and some in super hi-definition.

London 2012: an Olympic production
Although the UK is hosting the Olympic Games, the core broadcast coverage is provided by Spanish company OBS, the Olympic Broadcast Service, which is run by events producer Manolo Ramero. As host broadcaster, it provides a ‘neutral’ feed  which is supplied to each country’s rights holding broadcasters, such as the BBC in the UK. The feed is then customised by the rights holding broadcasters, who add their own commentary and additional footage for their own audiences. The OBS hires various venue production teams from around the globe to produce coverage of certain sports, based on their expertise in covering the events. The following organisations are responsible for producing the footage of the London 2012 games.

OBS Teams – Swimming, Diving, Synchronised Swimming, Water Polo, Modern Pentathlon - Swimming, Basketball, Equestrian, Fencing, Handball, Sailing, Shooting, Beach Volleyball, Wrestling
BBC – Boxing, Rowing, Canoe/Kayak - Sprint, Tennis, Football
YLE (Finland) – Opening/Closing Ceremonies, Athletics-Integrated/Track/Throws
SVT (Sweden) – Athletics-Jumps
SBS(Korea) – Archery, Taekwondo
Fuji TV (Japan) – Judo
TVE(Spain) – Canoe/Kayak - Slalom, Triathlon, Aquatics-Swimming Marathon
CCTV (China) – Modern Pentathlon, Badminton, Gymnastics, Table Tennis
NOS (the Netherlands) – Cycling-Road Race, Time Trial, Athletics-Walks/Marathon
STV (Slovakia) – Hockey
ICRT(Cuba) – Volleyball
ERT(Greece) – Weightlifting
VRT (Belgium) – Cycling (BMX, Track, Mountain Bike)


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