The On-Demand Olympics

Engineers gear up for history’s largest broadcasting operation

3 min read
Photo of Usain Bolt running.
Eyes of the World: If Usain Bolt breaks another record, you can watch it and most other Olympic events live on a smartphone.
Photo: Julian Finney/ Getty Images

The last time London hosted the Olympics was in 1948, the first year the games were broadcast to home televisions. Lauded at the time as a huge technological achievement, the operation would be considered quaint by today’s standards. 

As the sole broadcaster, the British Broadcasting Corp. shot the competitions with three then-state-of-the-art Emitron cameras wired to two control vans parked outside the famous Empire Stadium and its nearby pool (now Wembley Stadium and Arena). From the vans, engineers relayed pictures through coaxial cables strung along telephone poles to a central studio, where a producer chose the best program to pass on to the BBC’s only transmission station, at Alexandra Palace. The broadcasts, totaling 68 hours 29 minutes, reached just 500 000 viewers—most within a 65-kilometer radius. 

Click on image for a larger view.

Sixty-four years later, broadcasting the Olympics from London couldn’t be more different. By the start of the games this month, thousands of engineers, technicians, and producers from 148 broadcasting organizations will have descended on London in anticipation of the world’s largest broadcast operation to date. Every event will be shot in high definition and, for the first time, streamed live over the Internet. Nearly 5 billion people will watch the games on home televisions, PCs, tablets, and smartphones.

Delivering such diverse and voluminous coverage is no small feat. The host broadcaster, Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS), which is responsible for providing neutral coverage of all events, will do the bulk of the camera work. In total, OBS will shoot roughly 5600 hours of footage using more than 1000 HD cameras. The feeds will flow from venues across the United Kingdom over a vast network of fiber optic cables and converge at the International Broadcast Centre inside Olympic Park. “You’re talking hundreds of gigabits per second coming into the IBC,” says Tim Boden, a technical director at BT Global Services, the company that designed and operated the communications infrastructure for the London games. OBS production crews will then relay the data feeds to broadcasters, at the IBC and around the world, that have purchased the rights to screen the games in their home countries [see “How you will see the Olympics everywhere”].

In addition to distributing Olympics coverage at an unprecedented scale, some broadcasters are debuting new production technologies. OBS, for example, will shoot some events, such as synchronized diving and gymnastics, in 3-D. And camera crews at the velodrome, basketball arena, and certain other venues will shoot in Super Hi-vision, a next-generation television format offering 16 times as many pixels as HD.

The U.S.-based National Broad casting Co. (NBC) is also trying out new equipment. During past games, producers recorded incoming footage onto optical disks, which they manually loaded into edit decks to cut together programs. If multiple producers wanted to cut from the same footage, they had to record onto multiple disks. “In Beijing, we had hundreds of tape machines all recording the same thing,” says Darryl Jefferson, NBC’s post-production director. “It was extremely redundant and expensive.” This year, NBC has replaced the physical decks with virtual ones. The new decks allow producers to view low-resolution versions of the streaming footage while high-resolution files are simultaneously written to a database. “Anyone can log in to the management system and start cutting in real time as the file is growing,” Jefferson explains.

These Olympics are also the first time that NBC and the BBC will stream all Olympic events live on the Web. In partnership with Google, NBC will use the Internet company’s YouTube player and content-delivery network to deliver Internet Protocol versions of its broadcast streams to viewers on computers and mobile devices. 

“When you’re watching the Olympics, it seems like a seamless and singular process,” says Shujaat Ali, director of digital services at NBC. “But there’s hundreds of pieces that have to work together. The breadth of what happens over 19 days is just incredible.”

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