A gold medal-winning broadcast


At this year’s London Olympics Games, which take place from 27 July to 12 August, about 2 500 hours of coverage will be transmitted via the BBC’s broadcast channels, supplemented with up to 24 live streams on broadband, in high definition (HD), 3D and Super Hi-Vision. This is a far cry from the 1948 London Olympics, when the BBC provided 60 hours of coverage.

The BBC’s broadcast of the 1948 London Olympics was quite an achievement, especially considering that its service had only relatively recently been reactivated after World War II.

Because accommodation was scarce due to wartime bombs, male athletes were billeted in private homes and at former military camps, while women athletes were housed in nursing and college dorms. Bed linen and blankets were provided, but athletes had to bring their own towels and had to provide their own food.

Despite the hardships, the 1948 Games were extremely well supported with about 6 000 athletes representing 61 nations. This was the first time that the Olympics were shown on home television, with an official audience of just 500 000 within the British Isles.

The BBC used the old Palace of Arts, built for the British Empire Exhibition of 1924, as its broadcasting centre. It had eight radio studios, 32 audio channels with 15 commentary boxes plus 16 commentary posts at the Empire Pool (now Wembley Arena), where the swimming and boxing events were held. For television broadcasting a coaxial cable was installed between the Empire Pool and Broadcasting House.

Among the technological innovations used by the BBC for televising the Games were the all new CPS (Cathode Potential Stabilisation) Emitron cameras, which delivered a clearer image than previous CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) based video cameras. The Games also saw the first use of a mobile television control room for covering events at the Empire Pool.

One of the significant developments for the 1948 event was the introduction of an outside broadcast (OB) truck that allowed the crew to sit down while working outdoors for the first time in television history! Inside the Empire Stadium a TV producer and his assistant kept an eye on three monitors. From here, they could control the change-overs from one camera to another via a telephone link to the scanner van at the stadium.

2012 scenario

Today, 64 years later, the BBC has been appointed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as the host nation broadcaster. The IOC is the owner of the global broadcast rights for the Olympic Games – including broadcasts on television, radio, mobile and Internet platforms – and is responsible for allocating Olympic broadcast rights to media companies throughout the world through the negotiation of rights agreements.

Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) is responsible for providing the international television and radio signals from the Games to all rights-holding broadcasters around the world. The IOC established OBS in 2001 to serve as the permanent host broadcaster for the Olympic Games, eliminating the need to continually rebuild the broadcast operation for each edition of the Games. OBS ensures that the high standards of Olympic broadcasting are consistently maintained reach time.

Panasonic, a top-tier worldwide partner of the IOC, will provide on-site production services including equipment and a technical support team for the pools of broadcasters to utilise during the London Games.

A host of firsts

Over the years, the Olympics has been a breeding ground for new broadcast technologies – including the first HD captures in Los Angeles in 1984 and 3D in Barcelona in 1992. This year the entire workflow is tapeless, 52 HD OB vans will be deployed with over 1 000 cameras and 40 High Super Slow Motion units, to produce over 5 600 hours of coverage.

The BBC has teamed up with Japan’s public service broadcaster NHK to provide Super Hi-Vision coverage of the Olympics on three specialist 600 inch screens during the 17-day Games, located in London, Bradford and Glasgow. The broadcast will not be beamed to homes as there are no TV sets in the UK that can support the 4320×7680 pixel signal, as current “full HD’ sets only display 1080 x 1920 pixels.

Transmission will run at 60fps (frames per second), but Super Hi-Vision can operate at up to 120fps. Ultimately, the BBC believes that Super Hi-Vision could be a “better long-term prospect’ than 3D, but that would depend on bringing down the current massive costs of producing sets that can handle the signal, along with the heavy bandwidth requirements of broadcasts. NHK expects to offer Super Hi-Vision to homes in Japan by 2022.

Third dimension

While 3D has been an offering since Barcelona, the London 2012 Games will be the first Olympics to be broadcast live in 3D.

Head of BBC 3D Kim Shillinglaw, says: “We have always said we believe some of 2012 should be captured in 3D, and we’re delighted to confirm our offer to audiences in the UK, providing them with a new way of getting close to some of the key moments from the 2012 Games.’

All of the BBC’s free-to-air 3D output will be broadcast via its HD channel and will include the opening ceremony, closing ceremony, the men’s 100m final, and a highlights package at the end of each day.

Eurosport are taking 3D one step further. The pan-European broadcaster will showcase all of its 3D coverage on the Sky 3D channel, the UK’s only dedicated 3D TV channel which is already enjoyed by more than 250 000 Sky viewers as well as thousands of pubs nationwide.

For the duration of the Games, Sky will make its 3D channel free-to-view for all Sky+HD customers, to ensure that more than four million homes will have the opportunity to experience Eurosport’s extensive 3D coverage. This will be the first summer Olympic Games to have extensive 3D coverage freely available to a mass audience in the UK.

Eurosport will provide around eight hours of live 3D action every day during the Games, alongside four additional hours of the day’s main highlights, providing the most comprehensive 3D coverage of the Games on British television as well as feeds to the US and rights-holding broadcasters in Australia, China, France, Italy, Hungary, Korea and New Zealand.

Says Takumi Kajisha, Panasonic’s corporate communications managing director: “There is no doubt that the Games provide the best ever content for the 3D market and 3D will drastically change the way we enjoy them in our living rooms. We believe that our partnership will provide a true end-to-end solution for the success of the first 3D live Olympic Games and a great new era for Olympic broadcasting.’

Bandwidth demands

With 107 “technology-supported venues’ (combining competition and non-competition locations), the 2012 Olympic Games has been dubbed the world’s largest sporting event. Project planning for IT requirements began way back at the end of 2008. In this, the digital age, bandwidth demand will be massive.

Anticipating high demand of mobile services, Ofcom, the UKs independent communications regulator, announced that it will borrow wireless spectrum from other public agencies in the summer, including the Ministry of Defence. Ofcom will use about 20 000 wireless frequencies during the Games, and will take advantage of frequencies that were freed up after the UK’s switchover to digital broadcasting earlier this year, for cell phone communication. The agency will also use frequencies slated for an auction of the 4G spectrum that won’t be used for the Olympics. This spectrum will not be licensed.

The UK’s airwaves are already among the most intensively used in the world. Not only will the Games bring athletes and media but also the need for masses of wireless communication along with them, including wireless cameras, microphones and walkie-talkie systems, not to mention the mobile devices fans and journalists will no doubt bring.

Indeed the whole of Europe identifies the need to combat possible Internet slow-downs and blackouts. The British Cabinet has already warned businesses that the country might not be able to meet their Internet needs during the Games and Internet providers may be forced to ration access to the web during certain times of day, and service may fall out altogether at other times.

End of the race

There is a huge amount of planning to handle an event like the Olympic Games, which will be over no sooner than they have begun, but the experience for all those involved will leave a legacy for the future.

BBC director of London 2012 Roger Mosey and colleague Dave Gordon both agree that the experience of London 2012 will create a better understanding of the streaming technology.

“These digital Olympics will enable us to meet the 21st century need for consumer choice. All the various platforms provide that opportunity and London 2012 will be a milestone in that development,’ states Gordon.

But beyond technology, Mosey also sees the personal development of work skills as a legacy. “The Olympics require a high level of manpower and to help handle that we have run two rounds of our apprenticeship schemes and several work experience periods.

“We now have a very sound base of technical operators and this training will provide an ongoing benefit for the industry as a whole. All in all, this really is going to be a very positive and exciting year for the BBC,’ concludes Mosey.

This year’s London Olympic Games will be the BBC’s largest single broadcasting operation in its history, with daily coverage spanning across 16 hours, starting with Olympic Breakfast at 6am and the broadcast ending at midnight.

It is staggering to think that the 1948 games were organised in less than two years and with a budget of £730 000. By contrast, the 2012 Games broadcast operation is expected to cost £7.267bn.

Screen Africa magazine – July 2012


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