Channelling spirit: The OTT Olympics

One of the biggest media events of the new sporting year will come early. PyeongChang 2018 will see another advance in the operations of Olympic Broadcasting Services, and a Games-time debut for the Olympic Channel.

Channelling spirit: The OTT Olympics

40 days into 2018, one of the year’s biggest and most complicated sporting events will be underway.

The build-up to the 23rd Winter Olympic Games has been characterised by rancour, uncertainty and, sometimes, by apathy. Between domestic political turmoil, geopolitical strife, a sluggish commercial campaign, a doping ban for the Russian Olympic Committee and a general crisis of confidence around future bids, there has been plenty to keep the sports news lobby occupied in the past 12 months.

Yet as seasoned watchers of the Games will understand, from 9th to 25th February in PyeongChang, South Korea, only the sport will matter. The effect may only be temporary – like a coating of fresh snow – but for 17 days, it will be the athletes’ stories that count. And it will once again be the job of Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS), the host broadcaster of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), to relay those stories around the world.

“All the venues are ready,” says OBS chief executive Yiannis Exarchos. “Our house – the International Broadcast Centre [IBC] – is ready. In terms of construction, we have advanced a lot with the installation of equipment. We have started testing. The first broadcasters have actually started arriving. And, most importantly, snow has arrived – so the pictures are already beautiful from the venues. We’re very, very excited.”

Exarchos is speaking in Madrid at the end of November, a little over two months out from the Games, during the inaugural SportsPro OTT Summit – hosted with the support of the Olympic Channel, and partners Sportradar, Neulion, Eleven Sports, BAMTECH Media and Brightcove.

“We have completed cabling to the areas of our broadcasters, and some of them have already started taking over their spaces,” he notes. “And I would say that we are halfway through the cabling in the venues – especially in the most difficult and challenging venues, which are venues like alpine where the cable lengths are huge. We have finalised the installation of all the infrastructure for our specialty equipment – so the towers for the big cable cams that we use, and so on.”

Around 240 people are working at the IBC at the start of December; by February, that will number well into the thousands. No sporting event has a richer broadcast life than an Olympic Games. OBS estimates around 4,000 hours will be broadcast in total from PyeongChang, including over 860 hours of live sport and at least 39 hours just of live training coverage. Multi-clip feeds will be created for 11 disciplines, with TV partners getting access to 425 hours of content there.

OBS chief executive Yiannis Exarchos opens the inaugural SportsPro OTT Summit

The presentation of competition broadcasts comes after the “lengthy and complex process” of consultation with each international federation. Creating uniformity across the Olympic output, Exarchos explains, can be a challenge when sports have different aesthetic norms and, in some cases, are rarely produced to the level of a truly global media event. Discussions centre on how “to go closer to the action, closer to the athlete”, and can even encompass “how to make the format of a specific sport more TV-friendly or more digital-friendly”.

Most federations, Exarchos says, are open to experimenting when there are prospects of strong results.

“Let me give you an example: in PyeongChang we will be introducing on-board cameras on bobsleighs,” he adds. “Those will come as close as you can get to the athletes; they can replicate the experience that the athletes themselves have. But obviously in order to do that you need to have a buy-in from the athletes themselves, from the national federations, from the teams, from the international federations, to make sure that all safety rules are observed, to test the system and so on.”

Camera and display technologies inevitably catch the eye but for Exarchos, it is advances in digital distribution that will provide “an incredible opportunity” to tell the tales of PyeongChang 2018. Unsurprisingly, digital consumption of the Olympic Games has been rising since native content was first produced at Athens 2004 and last year in Rio, the signs were that it is drawing level with traditional platforms in some markets as TV viewership declines. In 2018, the centralised production network will now be serving that demand and reacting to that changing balance.

“One major innovation that we have introduced beyond what we’ve done in the past in PyeongChang is a service that we call Content+,” Exarchos reveals, “which is actually an aggregation of primarily short-form content that can work better, especially on social media. We believe that this will facilitate broadcasters to distribute the Games better through their social media handles. And it’s not just the traditional coverage that we put there in shorter form. It’s primarily content designed to work well in social media: so more behind the scenes, athletes preparing, individual stories; things that you don’t usually see in the traditional coverage.”

Content+, which will be a source of animations, maps and analytics as well as ready-to-air video, is an indication of an ongoing shift in Olympic programming strategy. It is one shadowed by the movement’s biggest broadcast partners. PyeongChang will mark the beginning of Eurosport’s €1.3 billion, six-year deal to show the Olympics across 50 territories, and the broadcaster has outlined an aggressive digital strategy built around its Eurosport Player OTT service. Social media partners including Snap Inc will join a push to grow measurable digital video engagement.

In PyeongChang we will be introducing on-board cameras on bobsleighs. Those will come as close as you can get to the athletes; they can replicate the experience that the athletes themselves have.

For NBC – signed up to carry the Games until 2032 in a US$7.65 billion deal which makes it the movement’s biggest benefactor – digital distribution is becoming an ever more important part of the picture. The US network has a historical reputation for conservatism when it comes to Olympic programming but, with PyeongChang 2018 taking place several time zones away, it will be fully embracing new media opportunities.

“We’ll stream somewhere in the neighbourhood of 1,800 hours,” says Rick Cordella, executive vice president and general manager of digital media at NBC Sports Group, in another interview at the SportsPro OTT Summit. Highlights and original programming will fill the “dark” hours during the US daytime.

“I think from a digital perspective, we can always go a little bit deeper,” Cordella adds. “I think on TV, again, with the limited number of hours, they don’t have a post-game figure skating show or a post-game hockey show. They typically move on to something else. Whereas digitally, we can take that audience that’s been watching a particular piece of content and feed them into a show that’s more about that certain niche.”

The service that is most emblematic of the Olympics’ digital drive is one that now shares a home with OBS in Madrid. Trailed for some time as a pet project of IOC president Thomas Bach, the Olympic Channel was founded in 2015 and went live at the end of Rio 2016. Its mission is to be the place ‘Where The Games Never End’, creating a broadcast presence for sports in the Olympic family between each showpiece.

Staff at the Olympic Channel monitor the global feeds that will go live on its platforms

The Olympic Channel and OBS both have production teams in a facility just off the Spanish capital’s Avenida de América; the headquarters of Spanish soccer’s La Liga are close by. The base was completed in May 2016 – constructed in accordance with Agenda 2020 directives regarding recycled materials and other sustainable practices – with Olympic Channel teams moving straight in and their OBS colleagues following after Rio 2016. There are around 400 staff based here – a little over 100 of them from the Olympic Channel, spreading themselves out over the lowest two floors. Its commercial and distribution teams are based in Lausanne, however.

Over the 15 months since the channel launched, its operators have learned the value of flexibility.

“When you’re a startup, you have to be improvising every day,” says Mark Parkman, the general manager of the Olympic Channel, also speaking during the SportsPro OTT Summit. “You have to be able to pivot.”

There are production suites downstairs in Madrid, as well as five voiceover booths where footage can be overlaid in different languages. There is a fully rigged studio here. A live production team is also in situ 24 hours a day, gathering in feeds from around the world.

At the latest count, the Olympic Channel has 57 federation partners providing on-demand video content as well as access to athletes and venues. In some cases, it has provided a platform for those partners to air their events in territories where the rights have not been sold. As delegates from the SportsPro OTT Summit tour the studios, operatives are sending a live feed of canoeing to viewers around the world.

The Olympic Channel has also worked through the archives and on a range of documentaries and original programming, much of it created with the help of local production teams in each country. Against All Odds tells stories of sporting triumph over real world adversity, while Identify follows five transgender athletes seeking to establish their own identity through sport. Foul Play is a new series examining the darker side of the Games, beginning with the tale of Margaret Lambert, the world-leading Jewish high jumper barred from Berlin 1936 by the Nazi regime.

Five Rings Films will launch in January, with its approach to sports filmmaking inspired by ESPN’s award-winning 30 For 30 series. Hollywood director Peter Berg is in line to produce an entry about Cuba’s celebrated boxing lineage. There are lighter touches, too, from Kids Call – short clips of kindergartners commentating on world class sport – to series which pit athletes against gamers and social influencers.

The Olympic Channel was founded in 2015 and went live at the end of Rio 2016

The execution of the channel probably differs from what was imagined when early feasibility studies were conducted. Rather than traditional TV, it has rapidly evolved into a multi-platform digital offering, with content distributed on its own website as well as the full range of social networks. Social media teams work out of the Madrid offices from Monday to Sunday, with night shifts running during major events.

 “We’ve probably focused less on linear as we’ve gone further into it, focusing more on localisation – which is a combination of digital integration, social activation, original programming,” says Parkman. “It’s something that we’re constantly adjusting because we know that that marketplace that we’re trying to attract, that younger demographic, some of the platforms that they’re spending time on didn’t exist two years ago. They didn’t exist when we were doing our initial studies as to what the Olympic Channel should be.”

The early indications are that this social-focused approach has found some traction. 7,000 pieces of content were produced by the Olympic Channel in its first year, in 11 languages, while 500 live events will have been shown by the end of 2017. The most eye-catching landmark was confirmed in October when it hit one billion views across all platforms – based on the Facebook standard of three seconds watched, YouTube’s 30 seconds and Twitter’s five to ten seconds.

“I didn’t know that we were going to achieve that billion number,” admits Parkman. “I kind of threw it out a year in advance and said, ‘How can we get to a billion views or a billion interactions? Let’s think big.’ And we got there a lot quicker than I thought.”

Ways of encouraging deeper user interaction are already being explored. The 25th anniversary of the Barcelona Games was commemorated earlier this year with an online game that paid homage to the 8-bit era of the 80s and early 90s. Ahead of PyeongChang 2018, the channel is running the ‘Become the Light’ campaign for the UN refugee agency UNHCR. Viewers can sign up to log their recent physical activity, with a global tally then converted into funding by the IOC for lighting in the world’s refugee camps. The intention is to further assimilate training apps in the near future, tying in incentives like statistical comparisons with Olympic athletes.

It’s something that we’re constantly adjusting because we know that that marketplace that we’re trying to attract, that younger demographic, some of the platforms that they’re spending time on didn’t exist two years ago.

“We didn’t envision in the beginning that we would offer archive services; we didn’t envision that we would do clipping and commentary; we didn’t envision that we would offer embeddable players on their platform so that they could use our Olympic Channel content,” Parkman says. “So that technology and that need for those services has caused us to divert a bit from the core mission but all of that that we do in the services is meant to grow our overall audience and aggregate that Olympic audience.”

At this stage, all of that is outlay. The Olympic Channel has been granted an initial budget of €490 million from the IOC for its first seven years of operation – taking it to the end of 2021. In time, Parkman says, the “long-term vision is that the channel will be self-sustaining”, and sponsorship is bound to play a significant role in how that ambition is achieved.

“We have Bridgestone, Toyota and Alibaba as the founding partners of the Olympic Channel,” he notes. “We’re also in close discussions with Intel about ways that they can participate in the channel. So between those four, we view that partnership as ways that they can continue their brand association with the Olympic Games 365 days a year, which a lot of them have wanted, they’ve been asking for, and the channel is that avenue to do so.”

The Olympic Channel did not exist at the point when existing TOP sponsorship deals were signed by the IOC but Parkman expects they will be a feature of future renewals and new business. Moreover, he sees a number of ways in which the movement’s partners will add different dimensions. “With Alibaba,” he says, “we’re talking about the possibilities of a digital Olympic Channel proposition in China, plus the ecommerce capabilities that they bring. They did US$25 billion in sales earlier this month on their Singles Day! So how can we harness their power to build an ecommerce platform for the Olympic movement through the Olympic Channel?”

Meanwhile, Intel’s experience will increasingly be brought to bear on the integration of virtual reality and artificial intelligence.

Olympic Channel content will not solely be living online, though, with IOC broadcast partners stepping up to collaborate. Eurosport will give airtime to Olympic Channel programming and place a portal on its own website, as well as offering creative input on new series and films. July saw the launch of NBC’s Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA, a new linear network that will offer Olympic-themed programming all year round with a particular focus on the fortunes of American athletes. In September a similar outlet was launched across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region with Qatar’s BeIN Media Group. BeIN Sports Home of the Olympic Channel has been operating across 24 territories since 1st November.

The Olympic Channel base in Madrid features production facilities and a fully rigged studio

“We’re providing the branding, we’re providing the original content that we create, we’re providing digital content, but the core operation is done by the rights holding broadcaster,” explains Parkman. “They’re the one that’s programming it and promoting it in their market. And we think that will extend to some other markets. We’re hopeful that in the coming months we’ll have activation in Korea, in Japan, in China, in Brazil. Those are the key ones that we’re talking to our rights holding broadcaster partners about.”

Existing relationships with broadcasters mean that the Olympic Channel’s role during Games-time will be quite different. PyeongChang 2018 will be the first event in its existence, providing an opening glimpse of how the IOC’s OTT service will work when the live action will be going on elsewhere.

“What we want to do is additive,” Parkman says. “First, we’re already doing quite a bit on the road to PyeongChang, which we started in conjunction with the lighting of the flame in Olympia and the 100 days to go that happened around November 1st and the flame’s arrival in PyeongChang. So what you see on our platform for the most part – from what we’re doing on social, what we’re doing digitally, what we’re doing in news, and particularly on our original programming, is more winter-focused.”

What we want to do is capture people’s attention on a daily basis. We don’t want them just every two years, for 17 days, to turn up and watch the Games. We still want them to do that in massive numbers, but we want to educate the audience in advance. 

Most of the Olympic Channel’s production staff will stay in Madrid for the duration of the Games, although news and social teams will be in South Korea to provide coverage from the ground. In the extremely rare case that rights have not been sold in a given market, there is the chance that the Olympic Channel could step in to provide live coverage.

“On our linear channels,” Parkman adds, “NBC Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA will have the Olympic Channel news that OBS is producing, they’ll have talking heads doing wrap-up, and they may build in some of our original programming as well as live medals. With BeIN, the idea is that on the linear side, the Olympic Channel-branded platform they’ve created will have live events.”

Once the flame goes out in PyeongChang, the Olympic Channel will return to its primary purpose – that of keeping the Olympic fires burning between Games and, with luck, helping to “inspire that younger generation to become more active, to become more fit, to try a new sport so that they live a healthier life”.

“What we want to do is capture people’s attention on a daily basis,” says Parkman. “We don’t want them just every two years, for 17 days, to turn up and watch the Games. We still want them to do that in massive numbers, but we want to educate the audience in advance. A lot of times, you don’t hear about these athletes except every four years. They don’t go away.”

The Olympic Channel has been following the progress of the Olympic flame towards PyeongChang

The project is thus a reflection of and response to viewership trends across sports media, which demand that lofty plateaus of engagement are found between the old peaks of major made-for-TV events. But there is another underlying pattern to address.

“I think all sporting properties realise in some respects that the viewer and fan are ageing,” concedes Parkman. “It creeps up every year, and everybody’s trying to get to that younger demographic. The channel was specifically designed to do that and it’s resonating. When over the billion views that we have, 77 per cent are under 35, we’re quite pleased with meeting that key metric.”

That happy discovery about the make-up of the Olympic Channel audience may not be too surprising, given the tendency of digital user bases to skew younger, but it is one that will build confidence in the future success of the endeavour. Other findings will soon help build a more detailed picture of the kind of viewer the channel is attracting and, as Exarchos suggests, inform programming choices that responds to their tastes.

“Digital offers you – on top of everything else – the opportunity to understand minute details of how content is being consumed,” he continues. “Every single moment; why somebody goes to a specific piece of content; where does he come from; where does he go next; when does he decide to leave a video. For us, it was super-important to create a system where we could digest and understand all this information. And I feel that, already, within those 12 months, we have made changes on the platform in the way that we produce and present the content that have been based on this knowledge and understanding.”

The future of the movement will not only be defined by digital, of course. Future events will see a different profile of sport appear, beginning with the quintet of baseball/softball, karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing at Tokyo 2020. The IOC’s courtship of the esports community is in its very earliest stages – with the Olympic credentials of competitive video gaming and the IP morass of its publishing and event landscape among the many complications that lie ahead – but Intel will bring its Extreme Masters tournament to PyeongChang ahead of the Games. It is clear that the broadcast proposition that exists in the future will be very different.

“I believe that the Olympics are bound to change,” says Exarchos. “They should change by the way they look. In terms of traditional coverage, we have reached a level of maturity which is pretty high – most people, even younger people, would appreciate and enjoy traditional coverage – but I still believe that even in the realm of this traditional coverage, there are areas of improvement leveraging digital technologies.”

As for the way PyeongChang 2018 looks, 4K coverage will be available in selected sessions for eight disciplines, as well as the ceremonies. OBS and Japanese broadcaster NHK will continue their joint experiments in 8K in a smaller number of events.

I believe that the Olympics are bound to change.They should change by the way they look. 

More live and on-demand virtual reality footage will be shot in South Korea as well, building on trials launched at Rio 2016 with the added assistance of Intel. “We believe in this technology – not as a technology which will substitute traditional broadcasting or even digital but as an additional opportunity and additional experience,” Exarchos says.

But the developments that Exarchos sees as being most influential in the years ahead are not limited to how the sporting action is captured on camera.

“I believe that there are specific technologies that maybe are not direct broadcast or sports broadcast technologies like augmented reality, potentially artificial intelligence, that may offer us opportunities to really change the way sports are covered,” he argues.

These solutions, which he believes will find “a big testing ground” at Tokyo 2020, will help to forge “incredible tools to have a better understanding of how sports work, of how the performances of specific athletes work”. They also look set to dramatically reduce the number of “very burdensome processes” in broadcast production, leading Exarchos to speculate whether “artificial intelligence or virtualisation or cloud technologies may provide us the opportunities to have a smaller presence” on site.

“Myself, I’m hugely excited about those technologies,” he adds. “I’m not afraid that they may change traditional broadcasting – as much as I love broadcasting and the way sports television has been done. I think that we live in such exciting times that it would be a shame if sports broadcasting was not trying to get something and to learn something from the emergence of huge technologies which will change the way we live.” 

The result, he suggests, is that more resources will be spent on what appears on the screen – whatever screen that proves to be.