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Millennials targeted for Olympic broadcast

Posted on Jul 20, 2022 by FEED Staff

After a marathon of challenges, Tokyo 2020 finally crossed the finish line and delivered broadcast innovations for a new generation of fans

Words by Adrian Pennington

The Olympics has long been a made-for-TV event. When the Games were last held in Tokyo – in 1964 – it was the first time they were broadcast live internationally, using the Syncom 3 satellite. 

Tokyo 2020 was planned as a made-for-digital (and millennials) extravaganza long before Covid threw plans into disarray. New sports (skateboarding, sport climbing, surfing) and a panoply of mobile-first and on-demand content were floated to bring younger audiences into the Olympic movement.

Core to the IOC agenda over the next five years is to “grow digital engagement with people”. Since 70% of all IOC revenue is derived from broadcast rights sales, broadcast partners being able to reach youth audiences is vital for the Olympics’ continued relevance.

“Our ambition is to bring the magic of the athletes’ achievements to the world on an unprecedented scale,” says Yiannis Exarchos, CEO of host broadcaster, OBS. “Technology is going to play a critical role and allow us to bring fans ‘inside the venue’ virtually. The IOC and OBS believe these new digital innovations will leave a legacy to build on at future editions of the Olympic Games.”

The IOC began dedicating more effort to streaming and digital content a decade ago, but many of these initiatives have come into their own at Tokyo 2020. OBS is also aware of the need for broadcasters to remotely produce in order to save costs – and cut down on its carbon footprint – for some time. For all these reasons, when the Games were postponed, OBS said there was no need to make any reductions to its original production plan. If anything, its output has been used to a greater extent than ever before.

With broadcasters deciding to take fewer personnel than planned to Japan, and with the IOC placing further restrictions on the number of foreign crew (for example, only one rights-holder camera operator allowed in the mixed zone, rather than a camera op, plus sound op and producer), coverage from Tokyo relied heavily on material captured by OBS.

The OBS feed, sent out to rights-holding broadcasters around the world, features all the competitive action. But it is behind-the-scenes interviews, Olympic Village, team clips and local city colour that remote rights holders have been restricted from capturing – but which OBS has been pouring into a media archive it calls Content+. Most of the 9000 clips in Content+ are intended for web and social platforms – 30% more than Rio 2016 – and deliberately filmed on smartphones to feed mobile consumption. 

Discovery, which paid €1.3bn for the pan-European rights for the Games between 2018 and 2024, has gone further. It managed to place remote-operated cameras in select athlete villages to facilitate safely distanced interviews. NBC has a pact with Twitter to produce ‘gamifiedactivations’ and bespoke interviews, as well as Primetime Sidecasting, during which Twitch creators commentate on NBC’s live broadcast on a second screen app.

Cloud and atmospheres

OBS also had in place various cloud-based solutions, allowing broadcasters access to all the content it produced. The main OBS media server is hosted in a cloud, run by Chinese tech and commerce giant Alibaba, enabling rights holders to access media, rough edit, and download multiple formats and profiles. It is not clear how many broadcasters actually used this, with some of the biggest (like NBC) perhaps feeling that cloud is not quite ready for live prime time.

“In terms of broadcasting, it is still early days in the full change to cloud technology, and Tokyo 2020 marks a first step,” Exarchos admits. “The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics may then become a facilitator for its wider use.”

The absence of cheering crowds in venues was an outcome the host broadcaster didn’t anticipate. Plans to replace a lack of noise, with clapping and cheers made by OBS crews themselves, came together at the very last minute. Artificial sound and CG crowds (of the type used to augment some sports last summer) were discarded as too complicated – and inauthentic – to introduce so late in the day. Also vastly reduced, if not altogether abandoned, were technologies aimed at giving spectators a more immersive experience. This included wearable glasses at the swimming, which would have delivered AR graphics over 5G; a multi-angle video feature available to golf fans at the Kasumigaseki Country Club, also delivered over 5G; and a 50m-wide screen broadcasting 12K resolution footage of the sailing events which, in the past, spectators had to watch with binoculars.

After a marathon of challenges, Tokyo 2020 finally crossed the finish line and delivered broadcast innovations for a new generation of fans

Words by Adrian Pennington

The Olympics has long been a made-for-TV event. When the Games were last held in Tokyo – in 1964 – it was the first time they were broadcast live internationally, using the Syncom 3 satellite. 

Tokyo 2020 was planned as a made-for-digital (and millennials) extravaganza long before Covid threw plans into disarray. New sports (skateboarding, sport climbing, surfing) and a panoply of mobile-first and on-demand content were floated to bring younger audiences into the Olympic movement.

Core to the IOC agenda over the next five years is to “grow digital engagement with people”. Since 70% of all IOC revenue is derived from broadcast rights sales, broadcast partners being able to reach youth audiences is vital for the Olympics’ continued relevance.

“Our ambition is to bring the magic of the athletes’ achievements to the world on an unprecedented scale,” says Yiannis Exarchos, CEO of host broadcaster, OBS. “Technology is going to play a critical role and allow us to bring fans ‘inside the venue’ virtually. The IOC and OBS believe these new digital innovations will leave a legacy to build on at future editions of the Olympic Games.”

The IOC began dedicating more effort to streaming and digital content a decade ago, but many of these initiatives have come into their own at Tokyo 2020. OBS is also aware of the need for broadcasters to remotely produce in order to save costs – and cut down on its carbon footprint – for some time. For all these reasons, when the Games were postponed, OBS said there was no need to make any reductions to its original production plan. If anything, its output has been used to a greater extent than ever before.

With broadcasters deciding to take fewer personnel than planned to Japan, and with the IOC placing further restrictions on the number of foreign crew (for example, only one rights-holder camera operator allowed in the mixed zone, rather than a camera op, plus sound op and producer), coverage from Tokyo relied heavily on material captured by OBS.

The OBS feed, sent out to rights-holding broadcasters around the world, features all the competitive action. But it is behind-the-scenes interviews, Olympic Village, team clips and local city colour that remote rights holders have been restricted from capturing – but which OBS has been pouring into a media archive it calls Content+. Most of the 9000 clips in Content+ are intended for web and social platforms – 30% more than Rio 2016 – and deliberately filmed on smartphones to feed mobile consumption. 

Discovery, which paid €1.3bn for the pan-European rights for the Games between 2018 and 2024, has gone further. It managed to place remote-operated cameras in select athlete villages to facilitate safely distanced interviews. NBC has a pact with Twitter to produce ‘gamifiedactivations’ and bespoke interviews, as well as Primetime Sidecasting, during which Twitch creators commentate on NBC’s live broadcast on a second screen app.

Cloud and atmospheres

OBS also had in place various cloud-based solutions, allowing broadcasters access to all the content it produced. The main OBS media server is hosted in a cloud, run by Chinese tech and commerce giant Alibaba, enabling rights holders to access media, rough edit, and download multiple formats and profiles. It is not clear how many broadcasters actually used this, with some of the biggest (like NBC) perhaps feeling that cloud is not quite ready for live prime time.

“In terms of broadcasting, it is still early days in the full change to cloud technology, and Tokyo 2020 marks a first step,” Exarchos admits. “The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics may then become a facilitator for its wider use.”

The absence of cheering crowds in venues was an outcome the host broadcaster didn’t anticipate. Plans to replace a lack of noise, with clapping and cheers made by OBS crews themselves, came together at the very last minute. Artificial sound and CG crowds (of the type used to augment some sports last summer) were discarded as too complicated – and inauthentic – to introduce so late in the day. Also vastly reduced, if not altogether abandoned, were technologies aimed at giving spectators a more immersive experience. This included wearable glasses at the swimming, which would have delivered AR graphics over 5G; a multi-angle video feature available to golf fans at the Kasumigaseki Country Club, also delivered over 5G; and a 50m-wide screen broadcasting 12K resolution footage of the sailing events which, in the past, spectators had to watch with binoculars.

olympic-broadcast-tokyo-2020
It is still the infancy in the full change to cloud technology, and Tokyo 2020 marks a first step
olympic-broadcast-tokyo-2020
It is still the infancy in the full change to cloud technology, and Tokyo 2020 marks a first step

Data-rich analysis

“While the ambience within the venue certainly enhances the broadcast of the Games, it does not define it,” defends OBS marketing. “Athletes will always be at the heart of our coverage – and conveying their emotional journey to the fans at home is at the forefront of all our efforts.” To that end, the use of data from athletes and equipment (like bikes or yachts) to enhance coverage is extensive. One of these innovations is an AI-powered, 3D, athlete-tracking technology developed by Intel and Alibaba.

Claimed as a first-of-its-kind use of AI and computer vision, it captures sprinters’ performances from four pan-tilt mounted cameras in the Olympic Stadium. OBS turned the data into visual overlays to show viewers different parameters, such as each runner’s sprinting speed curve and the exact moment they reached top speed.

For sport climbing, OBS created a 3D representation of the holds and walls. AR technology was used to switch between the live camera shots and the virtual, as well as generating virtual data about varying wall angles and routes.

Another data addition focuses intimately on the performance of archers. This includes cameras trained on their faces to analyse the slightest change of skin colour, generated by any contraction of blood vessels. Their heartbeats are also monitored and translated graphically on-screen. Such trials in biometrics stats could be widened to other sports for Beijing. Also trialled at Tokyo were a series of AI-led workflows. This included an Automatic Media Description (AMD) pilot, based on image recognition from an athlete’s bib to speed up the turnaround of automatic searching and clipping. By Beijing 2022, OBS is aiming to expand this process to as many sports as possible and open the service to rights holders.

Guillermo Jiménez, OBS director of broadcast engineering, explains: “We could customise the automatic content offering based on user preferences, whether by National Olympic Committee, athlete or sport. It means that, instead of broadcasters searching for content, content will be pushed to them automatically.”

OBS has certainly not been knocked off course in its ambition to deliver virtually all host coverage in 4K UHD (some super-slomo cameras are not yet upgraded to UHD and a selection of tennis events were HD only). The master signal includes High Dynamic Range, which dramatically improves overall picture quality.

Other innovations include arrays of up to 80 robotic PTZ 4K cameras placed at venues hosting gymnastics, athletics and BMX freestyle. The feeds were stitched together to create replay clips (claimed turnaround of under five seconds) to create an effect similar to the bullet-time shot in The Matrix, where the camera can move freely anywhere inside a frozen frame of action.

Remote presentation

The biggest impact of the pandemic fell on broadcasters rather than OBS. The continuing uncertainties around travel and growing Japanese concern over allowing potential infection into the country has curtailed efforts to present live from Tokyo.

That’s not to say that no presentations are happening locally. Far from it. The Olympics property is way too valuable to NBC, which paid $4.4bn for the rights to cover the Games in the US through 2020 – and another $7.75bn for rights between 2021 and 2032. It is remote producing the presentation of sports like diving, golf and tennis back in the US, but still producing coverage of American favourites like gymnastics and athletics.

“It’s not like we all work together every day,” explains David Mazza, senior vice-president and chief technical officer at NBC Sports Group and NBC Olympics. “We’re taking a whole bunch of finicky kit halfway round the world, setting it up in a hurry and getting 1200 freelancers – who arrive just a week before the Games – up to speed on how to operate it. Then run it at peak performance on the night of the opening ceremony, and for the 16-day marathon after that. I tell our staff, ‘Lots of stuff is going to go wrong. Work the problem, don’t look back. Fix it and get back on the air.’”

For Discovery, the Summer Games is a huge deal, too. It wants to drive subscribers to the Discovery+ app, which launched in January. It’s doing so by having wraparound coverage across Europe – and a giant, multistorey virtual set it calls ‘the Cube’. Of course, the set is only giant because it is virtual – built in Unreal Engine – but it affords tremendous presentational possibility. The real physical set is actually a relatively small, unremarkable-looking green screen space at Stockley Park, rendered into interactive 3D and based on an initial physical design by White Light.

“Remote production is an essential part of sports broadcast. Technology like the Cube allows us to bring the action back from anywhere,” says Scott Young, senior vice-president of content and production at Discovery Sports. “We want to push the tech to the limits. That means advancing the flexibility of the set-up, the interactive nature of the virtual graphics, and the design of the environment. We work with suppliers from the gaming world who can develop at the same pace we can think.”

This article first featured in the Winter 2021 issue of FEED.

Broadcast and Streaming archives

Data-rich analysis

“While the ambience within the venue certainly enhances the broadcast of the Games, it does not define it,” defends OBS marketing. “Athletes will always be at the heart of our coverage – and conveying their emotional journey to the fans at home is at the forefront of all our efforts.” To that end, the use of data from athletes and equipment (like bikes or yachts) to enhance coverage is extensive. One of these innovations is an AI-powered, 3D, athlete-tracking technology developed by Intel and Alibaba.

Claimed as a first-of-its-kind use of AI and computer vision, it captures sprinters’ performances from four pan-tilt mounted cameras in the Olympic Stadium. OBS turned the data into visual overlays to show viewers different parameters, such as each runner’s sprinting speed curve and the exact moment they reached top speed.

For sport climbing, OBS created a 3D representation of the holds and walls. AR technology was used to switch between the live camera shots and the virtual, as well as generating virtual data about varying wall angles and routes.

Another data addition focuses intimately on the performance of archers. This includes cameras trained on their faces to analyse the slightest change of skin colour, generated by any contraction of blood vessels. Their heartbeats are also monitored and translated graphically on-screen. Such trials in biometrics stats could be widened to other sports for Beijing. Also trialled at Tokyo were a series of AI-led workflows. This included an Automatic Media Description (AMD) pilot, based on image recognition from an athlete’s bib to speed up the turnaround of automatic searching and clipping. By Beijing 2022, OBS is aiming to expand this process to as many sports as possible and open the service to rights holders.

Guillermo Jiménez, OBS director of broadcast engineering, explains: “We could customise the automatic content offering based on user preferences, whether by National Olympic Committee, athlete or sport. It means that, instead of broadcasters searching for content, content will be pushed to them automatically.”

OBS has certainly not been knocked off course in its ambition to deliver virtually all host coverage in 4K UHD (some super-slomo cameras are not yet upgraded to UHD and a selection of tennis events were HD only). The master signal includes High Dynamic Range, which dramatically improves overall picture quality.

Other innovations include arrays of up to 80 robotic PTZ 4K cameras placed at venues hosting gymnastics, athletics and BMX freestyle. The feeds were stitched together to create replay clips (claimed turnaround of under five seconds) to create an effect similar to the bullet-time shot in The Matrix, where the camera can move freely anywhere inside a frozen frame of action.

Remote presentation

The biggest impact of the pandemic fell on broadcasters rather than OBS. The continuing uncertainties around travel and growing Japanese concern over allowing potential infection into the country has curtailed efforts to present live from Tokyo.

That’s not to say that no presentations are happening locally. Far from it. The Olympics property is way too valuable to NBC, which paid $4.4bn for the rights to cover the Games in the US through 2020 – and another $7.75bn for rights between 2021 and 2032. It is remote producing the presentation of sports like diving, golf and tennis back in the US, but still producing coverage of American favourites like gymnastics and athletics.

“It’s not like we all work together every day,” explains David Mazza, senior vice-president and chief technical officer at NBC Sports Group and NBC Olympics. “We’re taking a whole bunch of finicky kit halfway round the world, setting it up in a hurry and getting 1200 freelancers – who arrive just a week before the Games – up to speed on how to operate it. Then run it at peak performance on the night of the opening ceremony, and for the 16-day marathon after that. I tell our staff, ‘Lots of stuff is going to go wrong. Work the problem, don’t look back. Fix it and get back on the air.’”

For Discovery, the Summer Games is a huge deal, too. It wants to drive subscribers to the Discovery+ app, which launched in January. It’s doing so by having wraparound coverage across Europe – and a giant, multistorey virtual set it calls ‘the Cube’. Of course, the set is only giant because it is virtual – built in Unreal Engine – but it affords tremendous presentational possibility. The real physical set is actually a relatively small, unremarkable-looking green screen space at Stockley Park, rendered into interactive 3D and based on an initial physical design by White Light.

“Remote production is an essential part of sports broadcast. Technology like the Cube allows us to bring the action back from anywhere,” says Scott Young, senior vice-president of content and production at Discovery Sports. “We want to push the tech to the limits. That means advancing the flexibility of the set-up, the interactive nature of the virtual graphics, and the design of the environment. We work with suppliers from the gaming world who can develop at the same pace we can think.”

This article first featured in the Winter 2021 issue of FEED.

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