Rio 2016: CBC’s head of sports on taking the Olympics to Canada

CBC's head of sports Greg Stremlaw explains why the Olympics continue to captivate Canada, host of the winter edition six years ago.

Rio 2016: CBC’s head of sports on taking the Olympics to Canada

Greg Stremlaw is the head of sports at CBC, the Canadian public-service broadcaster that is in the midst of showing its 22nd Olympic Games from Rio de Janeiro.

In this recent email interview, Stremlaw gives SportsPro an insight into the network’s approach to showing the Games and explains why the Olympics continue to captivate Canada, host of the winter edition six years ago.

Generally speaking, how would you assess the appeal of summer Olympic sports - and the Olympic brand of sport - within Canada? 

CBC’s research shows that the Summer Olympics are second only to the Winter Olympics in Canadian viewing from a ratings perspective. It dwarfs all other events that you would think are "big ticket" programmes because of the hours each day and the duration. It is akin to having the Grammy Awards every night for 17 nights or an election programme all day every day for more than two weeks.

The Super Bowl is larger, but only for a six-hour window, if you include the pre-game show. Even the World Cup has days off in the competition and a single game focus at any given time. With this, I feel confident in saying that the Olympic brand of sport in Canada is exceptionally strong. 

The Olympics are an event that starts with a bang via the opening ceremony and just keeps coming. It is hard to measure Canadian interest but those on the production who have worked on Olympics for a decade or two at CBC/Radio-Canada do speak of a new interest in our summer athletes and the summer storylines.

Vancouver 2010 woke up something in Canadians that was not just a winter phenomenon. It carried a renewed interest into London and it has grown ever since through Russia and now as we head to South America for the first time.

Last year’s Pan Am games gave Canadians a chance to cheer at home and to see their own athletes on the podium in different sports. It has created an anticipation and perhaps an expectation as those same athletes head south to Rio, especially as Canada is set on a top 12 goal of total medals out of the 206 countries, which, if achieved, would be its most successful summer Games in history. 

CBC’s coverage of the Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014 Games were both deemed successful for different reasons. In what ways has the broadcaster’s Olympic operation changed and evolved this time round? 

I think that the process of delivery and technology are two of the largest differences on how we deliver the Games. Ultimately, this has led to the explosion of our ability to cover the Olympics in a multi-platform offering whereby Canadians can watch what they want, when they want and how they want to.

With that, CBC’s coverage of Rio 2016 is the most digitally-accessible Games experience in Canadian history, available across more platforms than ever before. CBC is sharing live and on-demand content, along with stats and results with Canadian-based users in real time on a wide variety of social media platforms, including Facebook, Vine, Snapchat, Google and YouTube

Given that these Games are taking place in a favourable time zone for Canadian viewers, what kind of overall numbers are you expecting in terms of viewership and digital metrics? 

While these Games are in a more favourable time zone for us, this also places far more pressure and emphasis on live coverage and not having the same extensive luxury to review and edit as we did in Sochi. The amount of live events taking place is unprecedented and that will afford Canadians an incredible choice of options. As mentioned, these are also a Summer Games and so it is difficult to predict how much a reach these Games will have to Canadians, which does tend to still be known as a winter sport nation.

The recent Pan Am Games that we broadcast did exceptionally well and reached 64 per cent of Canadians. For Rio, we are predicting that our coverage will reach at least 75 per cent of Canadians with significant traffic to our desktop, mobile and video platforms. 

How did advertising sales go ahead of these Games?

Advertising sales efforts have gone well, but we have continued efforts ongoing as we speak to make the most out of these Games and the investment we place on the Olympics as an overall portfolio. 

We have seen some key items such as branded content utilisation be very successful in the marketplace and a continued manner in which corporate partners are choosing to activate during the Olympic Games. The sales to these key sponsors have gone very well and I think Canadians will also be impressed with the content and how unique some of these offerings are and the way they connect the viewer to the athletes and the events. 

"The Olympics are an event that starts with a bang via the opening ceremony and just keeps coming." 

In what ways has CBC sought to drum up interest among Canadians and build narrative in the build up to Rio 2016? 

CBC and Radio Canada have led a strong promotional push regarding Rio 2016. It has been important to us for Canadians to know just how large a project this is and how many choices they will have. We are helping to generate interest and enthusiasm is via community viewing events. We have established partners who we are working with across the country that are providing permission to showcase the Olympic Games on large viewing screens to the public to promote the Olympic movement and enable as many Canadians as possible to gather and cheer the world on. 

CBC has a deal in place to broadcast the Olympics until 2024. How important are the Olympic rights in terms of CBC’s wider sports strategy, particularly given recent budget cutbacks and the loss of control over the Canadian NHL rights? 

In the fall, we were successful in acquiring a further extension to our Olympic rights with the IOC for 2022 and 2024. As you know, this now helps entrench CBC and Radio Canada as Canada's Olympic network, with rights to the next five straight Olympic Games through until 2024. I think these rights are very important for us as they provide key dates and pins in the map as our pinnacle event overall for CBC Sports. 

With this news, CBC renewed its commitment to connecting audiences with high performance athletes and their sports with the launch of ‘Road to the Olympic Games’ this past October. This multi-platform programme includes a 360-degree storytelling model that positions athletes and their stories at the centre.

This past year, we have grown this programme considerably whilst chronicling athletes' journeys on and off the field of play to ensure Canadians know them and her them in their own voice, never meeting an athlete for the first time on the podium. The programme consists of a weekly television program, formerly CBC Sports Weekend and a microsite within and the new CBC Sports app for iOS and Android devices. 

How will CBC be contributing to the IOC’s Olympic Channel project over the coming years? 

CBC/Radio-Canada as the exclusive Olympic rights holder in the Canadian territory is working closely with the IOC on how the Olympic Channel is rolled out in the Canadian market and how we will partner on its success. These discussions are still ongoing with the Olympic Channel not being launched until after the Rio Games and still work to be done as to how we collaborate to ensure the Olympic Channel fully enhances our partnership and rights within Canada.

The IOC has provided very strong support and confirmation that the Olympic Channel will do this and we are in turn excited to help build greater interest and participation in the Olympic movement for the IOC, especially with youth, and to enhance the value of the Olympic brand for ourselves, but also to all stakeholders. 

We will therefore continue to collaborate with the IOC as to how to help lead within Canada to create a successful Olympic Channel experience that also contains relevant Canadian content framed in a locally relevant context. The crux of this will be in the digital realm.