A few days ago, the Olympic flame made its journey from the ancient Panathenaic Stadium in Greece to Incheon; its safe passage on a Korean Air flight ensured by a protective case and a natty bespoke seat belt.
It is now less than 100 days until that flame reaches PyeongChang, the resort town that will stage the 23rd Winter Olympic Games from 9th to 23rd February. Perhaps more than any element other than the sport itself, the torch relay that will fill the intervening weeks brings together the composite strands of the modern Olympic identity - the earnest tradition, the commercial imperative for promotion, and the legitimate, unforced anticipation that will now build in the host nation.
That excitement has been a long time in coming. Just 341,327 tickets had been sold by the start of last week - around 32 per cent of the total available - while an alarming report from Democratic Party member Jo Seoung-lae suggested just 457 of 223,353 tickets had been sold for the Paralympic Games to follow. To date, the domestic mood around the Games has been dampened by a sluggish local sponsorship programme, changes in the organising committee leadership, and a sprawling and sometimes bizarre corruption scandal which brought about the impeachment of former president Park Geun-hye earlier this year. Internationally, matters above the country’s northern border have created their own causes for concern.
But around the world, the sheer breadth and volume of activity that the Olympics has to offer will ensure it remains a global media event of real significance. The 100 days to go mark is a key staging post for companies involved with the Games, heralding their most concerted promotional efforts to date.
For Eurosport, this will also mean a pan-continental reintroduction to a familiar name once better associated with more esoteric pursuits. In 2015 the broadcaster’s parent company, Discovery, bought a comprehensive package of European rights for all Games from 2018 to 2024 for €1.3 billion in a game-changing deal which makes the group the second-biggest benefactor of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) after US network NBC.
The Olympics is the best laboratory for understanding of consumer consumption of media.
That purchase irrevocably altered perceptions of Eurosport within industry circles, where its greater clout is commonly accepted, but now is the time for that change to be seen on screen. The vagaries of the IOC’s rules on free-to-air penetration means that rights will be sublicensed in some markets and carried exclusively on auxiliary Discovery outlets in countries like Sweden, but Eurosport will carry live coverage of every session in practice and competition on its pay-TV and digital platforms across 48 territories in 42 languages.
Events across South Korea and beyond have commemorated the 100 days to go mark after a sometimes difficult build-up
It has carried the Olympics in the past but that, notes Discovery Networks International president and chief executive JB Perrette, was by virtue of accepting a world feed and sending “the same faces” to a disparate collection of households across the continent.
The more hands-on approach necessitated by its arrival as a lead broadcaster makes PyeongChang 2018 “the biggest undertaking of a single event” in Discovery’s history.
“There is no event the world needs more than the Olympics now,” said Perrette, talking up the Games as an antidote to “uncertainty” and “volatility” - around the world and on the Korean peninsula - at an industry press launch of Eurosport’s plans ahead of the avalanche of 100 days to go activity this week.
A digital Games needing digital measurement
Eurosport has pledged to reach ‘more people on more screens’ than ever before in Europe for an Olympics, a goal that it will pursue both through its own pay-TV and linear outlets, the cooperation of its free-to-air partners, and the use of its Eurosport Player service. The OTT platform has moved closer to the centre of Eurosport’s wider plans in the past 18 months with more avenues sought for its distribution through initiatives like a partnership with the Amazon Channels platform in the UK and Germany.
Eurosport Player will screen every minute of the Games live, including practice sessions. As many as 20 live streams might be carried at any one time, making this the most ambitious digital Olympic project since the BBC’s coverage of its home event, London 2012. The architect of that project, Ralph Rivera, became managing director of Eurosport Digital in September 2016.
The live broadcast piece will be supplemented by a major push on shareable video. For the London 2017 World Athletics Championships, Eurosport dug into the archives to produce explainers on the 100m world record run by Usain Bolt in 2009 and the triple jump world record set by Jonathan Edwards in 1995. The latter was fronted by Edwards himself, now Eurosport’s lead English-language presenter.
Those explainers are being rolled out across the board for PyeongChang 2018, with every discipline getting the treatment, and will be at the core of a digital content exercise that will see a 55-strong digital and influencer team on the ground in South Korea. In October it confirmed a youth-targeted partnership with Snap that will see original and sponsor-backed content rolled out across the Snapchat network, with further deals set to follow with other social media players in the weeks ahead.
Discovery Networks International president and chief executive JB Perrette
“The Olympics is the best laboratory for understanding of consumer consumption of media,” said Perrette.
But for all the opportunities digital channels present to reach fans with a wealth of rapidly collated video content, the continued migration of audiences away from linear television has presented broadcasters with the difficult task of convincing partners and advertisers of the true value of their product.
As November began with news of Discovery Communications third-quarter earnings dipping slightly year-on-year - from US$219 million to US$218 million - chief executive David Zaslav heralded a continued pivot to direct-to-consumer and OTT in order to offset declining revenues across the pay-TV sector. Against that backdrop, Discovery and Eurosport are keen to use PyeongChang 2018 as a chance to showcase a more satisfying measurement for digital engagement.
For Perrette this means moving beyond TV ratings, a “prehistoric way of looking at video consumption”, and reaggregating the audience across multiple platforms in multiple territories. A new metric derived from a “clear mathematical formula” will help foster an understanding of how much time is being spent watching Olympic video, and can then be rolled out across the broadcaster’s other coverage in the future.
According to Eurosport chief executive Peter Hutton, also present at the briefing, the company will “share all of our data” with the IOC to give it a firmer idea of how its audience is changing. “They’re ultimately in the same business,” said Hutton.
Recouping the benefits
Prior to its acquisition of Eurosport, the Discovery business was not one that spent much time in the live broadcast rights market. Its ten-figure outlay on the Olympics took it into new territory and it will now work to make that purchase pay across three Games in south-east Asia before a victory lap event in Eurosport’s home city of Paris in 2024.
The Discovery sales angle to advertisers is that Eurosport coverage offers a ‘one-stop shop’ across its breadth of active markets and its range of TV and digital platforms. Bridgestone, also a sponsor of the IOC and Olympic Channel, has signed up as a presenting partner of the coverage and been prominent in the multi-territory activities marking 100 days to go.
“We’re ahead of where we thought we’d be two and a half years ago,” said Perrette of Discovery’s efforts to recoup its outlay. But the bulk of that Games-related income has actually come so far through its various sublicensing deals across the continent - particularly with heavy hitters like ARD and ZDF in Germany and the BBC in the UK. The exact scale of each of these contracts has not been confirmed but according to Sportcal, the former duo had spent €115 million on the rights to the Sochi 2014 and Rio 2016. More than 30 agreements are in place with national broadcasters overall.
Eurosport chief executive Peter Hutton sees a wealth of storytelling opportunities in digital
Eurosport has worked tactically on its retention of exclusive rights to certain sports in certain countries and although the rules on cross-promotion will differ from market to market, Hutton envisages these free-to-air partners acting as a “natural funnel” back to its coverage.
“If a free-to-air broadcaster can show a major medal-winning event for that country,” he said, “that helps knowledge of the winter Olympics and drives people automatically to what we do whether it be on the player or whether it be on our broadcast channels.”
Moreover, with these sublicensing deals ensuring that a substantial portion of Discovery’s outlay has already been recovered, Hutton added, that “takes some of the pressure off” for Eurosport “and from a creative standpoint that’s very helpful”.
Telling the story
Perrette described the digital delivery of PyeongChang 2018 as being about “reinventing the Olympics” but for Hutton, the process is as much about the fundamentals.
For any sports broadcaster, the Englishman said, a primary goal is to “make sure you care more about the events”. Eurosport is approaching the editorial aspect of its Olympic task from two angles; both of them are informed by the possibilities of digital engagement.
The “volume of content” available for digital distribution at a Games, Hutton said, presented a creative conundrum: “How do you focus on a story?” One answer, he suggests, is to allow the viewer to tell their own story. The accessibility and flexibility of digital platforms will allow those watching PyeongChang 2018 to follow the sports and the athletes that matter to them during the Games.
By picking up rights across the entire continent, Hutton added, Eurosport has also been able to “change the rules” about which fans can watch what and where. But the job of creating a different “visual story” for the Games in each nation is not one the network wants to overlook.
Local plans and talent have been showcased in each market around the 100 days to go landmark, while Hutton also hopes to lean on Eurosport’s depth and heritage in winter sports - a legacy of its pre-Discovery priorities - to deliver “a different level of insight”. He expects that the local journalists in each team will be able to leverage longstanding relationships with national athletes to create more personal and revealing interviews that can then be repurposed and find life across the continental network.
The Eurosport Cube is a purpose-built, 'mixed reality' studio for analysis which has been shipped to PyeongChang for the Games
Technology is also being brought to bear on the viewing experience in more visually arresting ways. The driving principle of these innovations, said Perrette, is that while “telling gets ten per cent of the message across, showing gets 100 per cent of the message across”.
Advances in the time taken to render video mean it will be possible for Eurosport to unleash ‘ghost skiers’ in their PyeongChang 2018 coverage, allowing analysts to directly compare an athlete’s performance with a competition leader or a technically proficient display in a single shot.
The most dramatic on-screen flourish, however, will be the Eurosport Cube. This is a purpose-built ‘mixed reality’ studio, currently being shipped to South Korea, in which presenters and experts will be able to avail themselves of augmented reality and other computer-generated visual aids, stepping directly into an Olympic performance and showing the viewer around.
“Hopefully when you see the Games,” said Hutton, “it’s the bit you’ll really remember about our coverage.”