From the vault: Yiannis Exarchos on establishing the Olympic Channel

Ahead of his appearance at the SportsPro OTT Summit next week, revisit our interview from 2016 with Olympic Broadcasting Services chief executive Yiannis Exarchos, in which he discusses how the Olympic Channel came into being.

From the vault: Yiannis Exarchos on establishing the Olympic Channel

In January 2016, Yiannis Exarchos, the chief executive of Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS), spoke to SportsPro about the launch of the Olympic Channel later that same year. Revisit that feature here, ahead of Exarchos' appearance at the inaugural SportsPro OTT Summit next week.

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With this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio looming, you’d have thought Yiannis Exarchos, the chief executive of Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS), the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) host broadcasting agency, would have enough on his plate over the next few months.

Preparing to produce 6,000 hours of television content across 29 sports in 35 disciplines in the space of just 17 days might seem like enough work to keep anyone busy. At a general meeting of the IOC in late 2014, though, Exarchos announced that his plate for this Olympic year would be getting that bit fuller, as OBS and the IOC jointly confirmed plans to launch an Olympic TV channel, with Exarchos one of the key players in its development.

Though there is much to talk over and discuss with Exarchos – from his experiences working under Manolo Romero, the first managing director of OBS, to his innovative plans for Rio and beyond – when it comes to the Olympic Channel there is only one possible question to start with: why?

“I think the most eloquent answer to that is what the president of the IOC [Thomas Bach], who came up with the idea for the channel, usually says, which is that it’s an effort to get the couch potatoes out of the couch,” Exarchos explains. “Essentially it comes as a result of an increasing realisation that in today’s world there is a significant lack of opportunities for people to have a more active lifestyle, not only in the developed world but also in the developing world, in large areas of the world that are being radically urbanised now. And because of the nature of modern life, which becomes so competitive and fast-paced, there is so much less opportunity for people, especially young people, to devote time to an active lifestyle.

“This results not only in health problems but also, consistent with the ideals of the Olympic movement, we believe that sports can offer so much in building strong and healthy societies. So there is a strong belief that engagement in sports and active lifestyle can have a very strong impact in the world.”

If something in that answer feels self-contradictory – creating a television channel to get people off the sofa – it is, Exarchos claims, due to an outdated way of thinking about how content is consumed, particularly by the demographic the channel will hope to target.

“It’s clear that the channel has to touch the hearts of younger people.”

Though the Olympic Channel will be available as an over-the-top (OTT) offering “on all forms of screens: mobile, tablets, PCs, and larger screens via smart TVs”, Exarchos says that OBS and the IOC will “initially prioritise mobile, because we believe that this is the entry point for the demographic we’re looking for”.

“For us,” he adds, “it’s very important that people have a very full experience already from a mobile phone because it’s very likely that they will be introduced to the channel that way and not through a traditional television set. We’re designing from the most challenging screen, which is the smallest ones, upwards.”

The channel’s aim, then, is not simply to get people watching, but to get people engaged and interacting with the content. It is about having content that is ready to be watched while out and about, shown to friends on a phone or tablet screen; shared with followers across social networks.

“One of the key priorities that we have that will be fundamental to the success of the channel is to create content that is consistent and conducive to being used in the medium that younger generations use,” Exarchos explains. “So we will see a lot of shorter-form content that can travel well and be shared across social networks and through other digital applications. We went very much for this channel to be friendly to social media and not what one would imagine as a traditional linear channel.”

Clearly, this will inform the range and the kinds of content the channel will host. If the job of a traditional sports broadcaster is to bring sport to people, Exarchos says the Olympic Channel’s objective “is to bring people to sport”.

“That goes back to the core of our mission,” he says. “We are not trying to create a regular sports channel which is just coverage of one event after another, aimed at the people who are already converted to sports, already looking for sports content. We feel it is our obligation to bring people into sports in the same way that the Olympic Games do that every two or every four years. You see so many people who never follow sports in between, but they fall in love with the Olympics. But then they have nowhere to go.”

An OBS employee makes plans at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi

In order to make that appeal to a wider, non-sporting audience, Exarchos elaborates, there are several things that channel has to do. “Obviously, coverage of competition is fundamental and I would say that will be 50 per cent of the content of the channel, either in the form of coverage of events of international federations or other sports events properties, continental games, world games and so on,” he says. “We need to remember, though, that with the exception of very few sports, most do not enjoy today a worldwide coverage, and the channel can offer them this, whilst at the same time because of the digital environment – while absolutely respecting commercial agreements that the federations have in place – we can show competitions that otherwise would not make it on to people’s screens. So for us, one area is to fill the gaps that exist in terms of distribution of major events of the international federations.

“The channel will not have the limitation that we have for objective reasons in the Olympic Games. The Olympics, because of the size and complexity, we are obliged to stay within the finite limit of sports and disciplines, although as you can see now the IOC is making an organised effort to renovate this programme. But the channel does not have this limitation and will not be confined to the very established traditional disciplines and sports. We would very much like to become a platform for the promotion of new disciplines and new sports, and we believe that the channel actually can be a catalyst for more rapid establishment for those sports as mainstream disciplines.”

On this front, Exarchos points specifically to easily shared, YouTube-ready sports that appeal to a younger demographic, such as parkour and skateboarding, both of which are currently at various stages of acceptance into the Olympic fold. Parkour is attempting to establish an international federation, with skateboarding competing for a place on the programme at the 2022 Games.

News will also form a key part of the channel’s output – not just sporting news but updates on commercial and infrastructural developments that have an impact across the industry. “We have the ambition,” he says, “of this becoming little by little the source to go to for information for all sports, not just for football or popular sports.”

The most adventurous plan for content on the channel is the range of original programming Exarchos says the organisation has lined up, in both short and long-form documentary and magazine show formats. “We want to create regional programming that will be of very high quality, about different kinds of sports, about the importance of an active lifestyle, about the big figures of sports, the history of sports,” he suggests.

This is what Exarchos sees as arguably the most fundamental content the channel will host. Coverage of news and events depends, to some extent, on viewers having an existing interest in tuning in. The rest of the channel’s output, Exarchos believes, will be the most engaging and interesting to a new, younger audience coming to the world of the Olympics for the first time.

“A big part of our work and current attention is precisely at creating those forms of content that are really relevant to the millennial generation,” he says. “And this content needs a completely different approach compared to traditional content. We don’t want to alienate, with the channel, the traditional friends the Olympic movement, obviously, but it’s very clear that the channel does have a priority to touch the hearts of younger people. To do that you need to speak the language that they understand, which I also believe is a very interesting and revolutionary language in modern media.”

For Exarchos, it is not just that the channel needs to host that kind of engaging, sharable content to thrive, but that its emergence and popularity has made the channel’s creation possible in the first place. “It’s interesting that we are living through a period of true revolution in media,” he says. “Especially digital media, and this is the medium of choice to engage and touch the hearts especially of the millennial generation. We are in a moment to take advantage of that.”

The precise timing is right, Exarchos says, because “the IOC is currently in a pretty strong position, both in terms of the fact that the Olympic Games are as popular as ever – you look at London, Sochi, they were the most watched and most followed events in the world – but also it’s in a financially and institutionally stable position”. Bach, among others within the organisation, saw the opportunity for the IOC to continue to meet its “obligation to do something more to promote and engage people in an active life,” which, after a long deliberation and debate, took the form of the Olympic Channel.

“So this is the basic thinking,” Exarchos explains. “It’s not as if the IOC all of a sudden decided to become a broadcaster. It is because it is as part of its mission to promote sports, to promote active lifestyle, and to provide inspiration to people to engage in this kind of activity. And we believe that best medium to do that is through the creation of the Olympic Channel, which is essentially a digital media platform.”

Exarchos also takes pains to be clear over what the Olympic Channel is not: it is not, he says, “an effort to promote organisations, it is not a PR exercise,” nor is it intended to be “the mouthpiece of the IOC or of the federations”.

It is also not an offshoot or an arm of the OBS. “The channel has its own identity, its own independence, its own management team,” Exarchos says. “There are some synergies between the two, including myself, but the channel will have its own means and resources to do its job. Obviously it will rely on the experience of OBS and OBS is supporting it on various levels, but I would say that the creation of OBS would not necessarily lead to the creation of the channel, but definitely has been a big help especially in the development.”

Most importantly, he says, “the Olympic Channel has not been created for the Olympic Games”.

“The Olympic Games is still the most televised event in the world,” he elaborates. “There would be no reason to create a channel for the Olympic Games because, thanks to the work of the rights holding broadcasters around the world, the message of the IOC and the Olympic movement goes around the globe like no other.

“The problem, really, is the period in between where the world of sports can struggle. And I’m not talking here about premium sports and properties like soccer, like football in the [United] States, like tennis. I’m talking about the core of most of the other sports. They suffer and they struggle to have some space and promotion in the period between the Games, and this is where the channel, we believe, can have some significant role in sustaining interest in those sports in between.”

It is for this reason that Exarchos believes the broadcast partners and sponsors of the Olympics “are delighted by this development.”

Because the channel will cover Olympic sports all year round, and promote less commercially popular sports which big broadcasters may presently shy away from giving too much airtime, Exarchos is sure that “the existence of the channel will actually support and promote the work of the broadcasters, because we can maintain the interest of the viewing public in sport, we can cultivate the sport, we can cultivate and support the big heroes that people can enjoy during the Games”.

Exarchos is insistent that the existence of the channel will in no way step on the toes of Olympic broadcast rights holders. Broadcast rights sales are still the single biggest generator of revenues, not just for the IOC but for the international member federations and National Olympic Committees (NOCs) as well. The announcement of the Olympic Channel came just a few months after US network NBC announced its massive US$7.65 billion, 18-year rights deal with the IOC, and a few months before Discovery finalised its own US$1.45 billion agreement until 2024 for the European rights. These deals, clearly, will not be negatively affected by the Olympic Channel’s launch, but Exarchos believes the channel can actually help to add value to them.

“What we are increasingly seeing is that some of the major rights holding partners want to move toward a longer term association with the IOC and the Olympic movement, and this is not only for the Olympic Games, it’s also for the period in between,” he explains. “So we discuss with them, with NBC, with Discovery when they fully start activating, the rights and with other partners in China and other countries, about practical cooperation with the channel within the area of their channels. This can be cooperation in the form of content and of distribution. We can make sure that they are getting value from their deals continually, throughout the Olympic cycles, not just every four years or every two years.

“Also, on a very practical and pragmatic level, we are already discussing and putting in place agreements of co-operation with the Olympic Channel for the creation of content and distribution. They know very well their areas, their countries, they can approach and touch the hearts of people in their countries better than anyone else. And also on the distribution front, regardless of the fact that we’re embarking on a global venture, we mustn’t forget that broadcasting still to a very big extent operates on a local level. The knowledge and technical abilities of a local partner remains fundamental.”

The sponsors, especially The Olympic Programme (TOP) partners, meanwhile, “will now have a platform where they can really associate themselves with the Olympic movement on a 24/7 basis,” Exarchos says.

“We have very advanced discussions with all of our partners,” he continues, “they are very excited by the project and I believe that what is more important is that they also as ourselves see this not as an opportunity of simple media buy but as an opportunity for an association with the Olympic values.

OBS’s own crew of experienced broadcasters work with specialist teams from around the world

“Our partners fully understand that the younger generation are not impressed by commercials or in-your-face advertising, but they attach value where they feel respect. And I think this is what the IOC and the Olympic movement can offer to our commercial partners on an ongoing basis, which is associated to values in a world which is in constant need of those values. How can they associate their message and their values so that they are part of this world?

"I think this is what increasingly differentiates in today’s world organisations that have a future from other ones. What they are prepared to give back to societies; it’s a changing world and the smarted commercial organisations have started realising it. This is the way to engage and approach and establish a relationship with a younger generation that cannot be fooled, that is looking for transparency and is very strong and intelligent.”

With the countdown to Rio entering its final stage, there is still no official word on whether the channel will launch in time to air content during the Games, though Exarchos believes the decisions “will be made soon”.

“Obviously we will go through a range of testing in the next months,” he says, “because we want to make sure that first of all we have something that is very representative of our ambitions and is already good enough from launch. From a technical and content point of view we will be ready, we’re well within our objective. But we also need to have the ability to correct things, because I have yet to meet someone who can tell you, exactly, ‘This is something that will work, and this will not.’ We need to allow ourselves the luxury to adjust and chance things in that short period of time after we launch.”

Turning toward what is still his day job – the business of readying the OBS for the flurry of activity that it will be undertaking throughout August, Exarchos says that the preparations are “coming together very well”.

He adds: “We have been thinking very hard about the traditional coverage and I believe that it will be a very high standard, but I believe also it’s a turning point where the Olympics will enter big time into the digital world.” OBS is set to produce more digital content than ever before, including the introduction of its Olympic Video Player, a white-label digital offering for rights holders to distribute content online and via mobile apps, and curating a distinctive second-screen experience for the official Rio app.

These innovations, Exarchos believes, “will further enhance the introduction to new sports to people who have never seen these sports before and will help very much in the younger generation following the Games on their mobiles or tablets”.

On a technical front, perhaps the biggest revelation was not anything that OBS would be doing, but something it wouldn’t: broadcasting in ultra-high definition 4K. Despite the format’s explosion over the past 12 months, with 4K television sets now readily and (relatively) inexpensively available, Exarchos does not feel that the penetration is there to make the investment in fully covering the Games in the format worthwhile.

“I am reluctant to say that we’ll cover the Games in 8K or 4K, because ‘covering the Games’ for us means having a very high standard of coverage consistent across all 6,000 hours of television,” he says. “If we cannot do it for everything, we do not feel that we can say this. We will shoot some stuff in 4K for some of the broadcasters who are interested in that but for an event like this with 800 sessions – 6,000 hours of television – it is not responsible for us to say, ‘We covered the Olympics in 4K.’

“We will continue the experiments with our Japanese friends on the front of 8K, but the full technology or chain of equipment is available for full coverage, but they are technologies we have to follow at some point, they will mature, and we use this Olympic Games as a testing ground.”

Rio will also serve as a testing ground for virtual reality (VR) broadcasting, another technological innovation that has broken through in recent times. The technology will be used sparingly – “for ceremonies and then for at least one highlight event per day in different sports” – but its use shows OBS’s desire to remain at the forefront of broadcasting developments.

“Again, we see that as a first-time experiment,” Exarchos says. “I believe this is the year VR becomes more mature, because of technological developments, but also because of conditions in the market. There is a lot of learning to be done, not so much on the technical side but on the production side and we do not pretend that this coverage will be as mature as our standard coverage, but I think it can offer a completely different type of opportunity and experience and for an event like the Olympic Games where it’s all about experience, providing an opportunity for people around the world to have a sense of being there is of extraordinary value. On the other hand I see, increasingly, people engaging in the gaming world, especially in the younger generations, how much more comfortable the are with using the gear that’s necessary for VR. I think that this year we have a convergence around this technology and I think Rio will be an excellent testing ground for this.”

The challenges Rio has presented – and it has certainly been the most visibly challenging Games in recent memory, with beleaguered local organisers plagued with setbacks and negative news stories surrounding everything from the readiness of the venues to the cleanliness of the city’s waters – are not, he says, especially out of the ordinary.

“I cannot remember any Games, starting with my own country [Greece, which hosted the Olympics in Athens in 2004 and was the first on which Exarchos worked with OBS], where there were not challenges of one form or the other,” Exarchos says. “Organising the Games is an extraordinary challenge for any country in the world, even for the most advanced and sophisticated.

“For Rio, for the development of this city and the infrastructural problems the city traditionally has, the Games are a challenge precisely because they are a great opportunity to get Rio from a city with perennial infrastructural problems into a fantastic, modern, functional city. I think the additional financial and political problems in Brazil have made this more difficult but, on the other hand, if you see the passion of the people, their love for sports, for their city, you have no doubt that even though the road will be difficult, the end result will be unforgettable.”

This feature originally appeared in Issue 85 of SportsPro magazine. Subscribe to the magazine here.