Facing the challenges and innovating at the Winter Olympic Games with CEO of OBS Yiannis Exarchos
Yiannis Exarchos has been CEO of Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) following the Olympic Games London 2012, after having served as a top executive for all Olympic host broadcasting organisations since Athens 2004. He recently gave an interview for the OBS Media Guide laying out his thoughts concerning the unusual planning of the Beijing 2022 Games and the key broadcast innovations.
Welcome back to China. This will be your second Olympics in Beijing. What first comes to mind when remembering the 2008 Games, from a personal and a broadcast standpoint?
It is great to be back in Beijing and China. I lived here for three and a half years before Beijing 2008, and I am extremely fond of the city. In 2008, I had the pleasure of experiencing the most spectacular change of a city there has ever been. It was fascinating to see, but so was getting to know the Chinese people and their culture.
The Games of 2008 were China’s welcoming party to the world, and we all witnessed what China and Beijing were capable of when organizing a worldwide event. Now, China is an established power, and will become the first to host a Summer and a Winter Games.
From a broadcasting perspective, Beijing 2008 was the first time that the Games were distributed in high definition (HD), and the first time we produced a little bit of digital content, at a time when most of the platforms we now use didn’t exist. Now, we have transitioned to ultra high definition (UHD) high dynamic range (HDR) and are equally focused on traditional television and digital broadcasting.
The preparations for Beijing 2022 haven’t been conventional, considering that the past two years encompassed a global pandemic, travel restrictions and the postponement of Tokyo 2020, leaving only six months between Games. How has OBS remained agile in adapting to a constantly changing environment and been able to deliver and plan back-to-back Games?
Obviously, it has been a highly complex environment from a planning and execution point of view. As host broadcaster, OBS had to deal with two Olympic Games and two Paralympic Games happening within seven months of each other. So, it means four huge
Games operations happening in a concentrated period of time. Planning has not been straightforward because our teams couldn’t travel to Japan or China for a long time. China has pursued a successful zero COVID-19 policy, but that meant gaining access and entry was difficult. We weren’t able to do some of the usual things we do when you can travel, but we were able to get a few people on the ground to work alongside the Beijing 2022 Organizing Committee. We also fast-tracked our remote planning tool, and then it was a case of planning properly for the entire implementation of the Games, both Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022. We began work on the fit-out of the Beijing 2022 International Broadcast Centre (IBC) three weeks before the start of Tokyo 2020. Preparing for these Games has been a unique challenge, but I’m happy to say that we are in very good shape ahead of the Beijing 2022 Opening Ceremony.
Tokyo 2020 proved that delivering a safe and successful large-scale event is possible, thanks to the principles laid out in the Playbook. How have the principles in the Beijing 2022 Playbook evolved to meet the zero COVID-19 strategy in China?
We know now that Tokyo 2020 was not just extremely successful, but extremely safe with 33 positive cases among the 11,300 athletes, and 464 among tens of thousands of accredited stakeholders. That success can be attributed to the implementation of the Playbook and the countermeasures that were put in place, notably those introduced by OBS for the rights holding broadcasters (RHBs) activities at the venues. For Beijing 2022, the greater build-up time means that we have refined some of those measures, to provide better working conditions for the broadcasters. However, we have also had to consider the conditions laid out by the Chinese government. It has been a highly complex environment from a planning and execution point of view The Playbooks have been developed jointly by Beijing 2022, the IOC and the IPC, in close collaboration with the Chinese Government and other relevant authorities. They are based on the extensive work of an international working group and collaboration with scientific experts and organisations from across the world. They include sport-specific regulations, which build upon the experience of the International Federations, other sports organisers and the measures implemented during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. The Chinese have been able to create a loop system which houses all the resources in a very safe Olympic environment. It has been in operation for a few weeks, and it is working very well. It is easy to follow, so everyone can have confidence that they will be able to perform their job while at the Games.
What challenges and opportunities in your planning come from having three competition zones?
We are accustomed to working with numerous competition zones, especially at the Winter Games, and what really helps bridge the distance from Beijing to the Yanqing and Zhangjiakou zones is the new high-speed rail system, which has brought the mountains so much closer to Beijing. Whereas it was a three-to four-hour car journey, now it is a fraction of the time by train. The mountain venues have been built for the Games and have already hosted highly successful test events. I expect the spectacular locations – from the space-age looking ski jumping facility to the beauty of the ski runs to the revitalized industrial Shougang Park – will wow a global audience and create images that will be remembered around the world.
Beijing will become the first city to host both an Olympic Winter Games and Olympic Games, with an ambitious goal of engaging 300 million Chinese in winter sport. How will the coverage by OBS support this effort?
In each host city, the Olympic Games have the unique power to create a narrative and imagery for the whole nation, and they draw in people who aren’t regular followers of sport.
Beijing is ready to host the Olympic Winter Games. All of the competition venues are ready and successful test events were held. Learnings from these test events are incorporated into Games planning to ensure excellent conditions for the athletes to perform at the highest level.
The Winter Games will help the Chinese people engage more with winter sports. Over 200 million Chinese have begun playing these sports and that is a great thing. China now has more than 650 ice rinks across the country, an increase of more than 300 percent since 2015. The number of indoor and outdoor ski resorts in the country has almost doubled, and over 2,000 primary and secondary schools across China included winter sports in their curriculum by the end of 2020.
The Organising Committee has also emphasised the need to make the Games as sustainable as possible. Five of the seven competition venues in the Beijing 2022 competition zone will be legacy venues from Beijing 2008, including the “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium, which will host the Opening and Closing Ceremonies; the Water Cube, which has been transformed from the Beijing 2008 swimming venue to host the curling competitions; and the Wukesong Sports Centre, which hosted basketball in 2008 and will host ice hockey in 2022. Beijing 2022’s innovative Shougang Park was created by using and renovating discarded factories in the Shougang industrial area and the Big Air Shougang venue is set to become an iconic venue of the Beijing 2022 Games, with its giant chimneys from the former steel plant as a background.
The other legacy from the Beijing 2008 Olympics is the programme that was put in place to ensure Beijing’s air is far cleaner. It means that today we can enjoy brilliant blue skies, over an eco-friendly city from where you can see the surrounding mountains. Many back then didn’t even realise that Beijing was situated on a plateau surround by mountains.
A new standard was set in Tokyo 2020 with the broadcast of the Games as a native UHD HDR production with immersive audio. What were the key learnings and how have they affected the direction OBS will take in Beijing and future Games?
At Beijing 2022 we are consolidating the way we now produce our coverage in UHD HDR, and the Beijing 2022 Games will become the first Olympic Winter Games natively produced in this new standard.
To achieve this level of production, we had to develop a technical workflow that would allow us to shoot in UHD, while at the same time ensuring the delivery of our outputs in both UHD and HD as per Olympic standards.
The way this new production standard has developed, with audiences demanding for more content to be delivered in 4K as all TV screens are nowadays fully UHD 4K compliant, has helped accelerate the transition to live production and content distribution of the Olympic Games in this new standard.
Further, OBS has also created its own set of look-up tables in-house, enabling a better interoperability between the two co-existing HD SDR and UHD HDR workflows.
For those watching the Games at home, the fact that our entire coverage is now produced in native UHD HDR makes a huge difference, when it comes to the quality of the pictures and the sounds. We have moved from a 5.1 to 5.1.4 audio configuration, which makes the viewers feel enveloped by the atmosphere of the event.
In Tokyo, this immersive audio set-up also helped mitigate the absence of spectators. However, in Beijing, there will be limited spectators in the venues and their presence will certainly enhance our coverage.
We are confident these first Winter Games in UHD HDR with immersive audio will provide an unmatched viewing experience.
Fans want to feel closer to the action, as if they were there in person. How does OBS innovate and deliver on fans’ new needs and digital habits to enhance the viewing experience?
OBS has always had the objective of making the fan’s experience feel as close as possible to being at the arena. As well as satisfying core fans of the sports, we also need to cater to people who only follow those sports during an Olympic Winter Games. Historically, the Olympic Games has a much higher number of first-time viewers than other sporting events.
We need to provide an opportunity for a sport to attract an audience that doesn’t normally follow the sport closely, and to do that you have to immerse them in the sport. You have to make them feel as close to the athletes as possible, and make them see, listen, understand all the passion and the emotion that goes into practicing their sport.
As such, we have always pursued the directive of immersive coverage, and that is helped by improvements in technology. Nowadays, we have more tools, whether audio or visual, such as the increased use of multi-camera replay systems, greater data on our digital streams and immersive audio, that really give viewers that sense of being part of the Games. For example, in Beijing 2022 we will be producing 8K live virtual reality (VR) coverage for the first time.
We will be able to expand our traditional coverage at these Games because of the more widespread coverage of 5G technology. 5G’s greater bandwidth gives more mobility and flexibility and allows for a seamless transfer of high-resolution video with the ultra-low latency required. With 5G, you can have cameras in places you weren’t able to have them before, providing new angles and more immersion.
Our digital output will also allow worldwide audiences to come together and share their experiences of the Games, and engage with the Olympics, no matter where they are in the world.
In that sense, compared to previous Games, Beijing 2022 will be much more immersive and interactive, and we will make the fans feel much closer and take them onto the field of play itself.
When it was announced that Tokyo 2020 would be held without spectators, OBS quickly developed an innovative Digital Fan Engagement initiative. Will this project be expanded for Beijing 2022, and do you foresee this becoming a permanent fixture for future Games?
One of Tokyo 2020’s biggest legacies is the Digital Fan Engagement initiative, which was made up of three elements: the Fan Video Wall, the Virtual Cheer Map and the Athlete Moments. We had this project in mind for a while but had to fast-track it for Tokyo 2020.
Despite putting it together in two months, it proved a huge success and was widely popular. Athletes loved it, spectators loved it, fans back home loved it, and broadcasters loved the Athlete Moments, because it shared the emotion of an athlete’s connection with their family to those watching. We had over 250 million cheers coming from every single country of the world, supporting every single nation that participated in the Games and more than 200 Athlete Moments connecting Olympians in the venues with friends and families back home.
After Tokyo 2020, we held discussions with athletes, broadcasters and International Federations who all expressed a desire to continue with the initiative, regardless of whether there would be spectators present or not at the venues.
We will be hosting Athlete Moments from every single venue, for every single sport, something we didn’t have the capacity for in Tokyo. We will incorporate these special moments into our multilateral coverage as much as possible.
The Digital Fan Engagement tools will also be available to Beijing 2022’s Sports Presentation to allow global fans to cheer on their favorite athletes, and in doing so enhance the atmosphere and sense of global fan inclusion in the Games, which will further enrich the athletes’ experience.
It has become clear over the past two years that remote operations and production is rapidly becoming the new normal. What’s next for digital transformation when it comes to Olympic broadcasting?
Two pillars have underpinned our planning for the greater introduction of remote and virtual workflows for the RHBs. The first was the change from a system that relied on traditional broadcast hardware infrastructure into one that is fully IP-based. We completed that change a couple of years ago. The second was the launch of OBS Cloud, which is our broadcast-specific cloud-based platform that we created in partnership with Worldwide Top sponsor Alibaba. With OBS Cloud, content delivery, signal processing, post-production and many other elements are now based in the cloud. At the Olympic Games, where there is a huge amount of content and the challenge for broadcasters is to manage that content, by providing them with efficient cloud-based solutions that can allow them to streamline their operations, we facilitate their workflows.
For Beijing 2022, we have continued to invest in cloud-based services. For the first time, OBS will distribute the multilateral signals in HD and UHD via the cloud, and it will also be the first time that RHBs will have the ability to edit the content available on our online distribution platform, Content+, remotely. It means a more efficient way of working and addresses the RHBs’ huge demand for content to share on their digital platforms, without having to multiply their resources.
Over the last two years, the global pandemic has forced broadcast organisations around the world to speed up their transformation, and they made more changes in these two years than they had in the previous decade. We introduced OBS Cloud in 2019, then in 2020 when the pandemic began RHB bookings increased seven-fold. The challenge of the pandemic made us all more creative in our thinking about how to work in a more efficient, remote, and virtual way.
An important project for Beijing 2022 is a virtualised outside broadcast (OB) van, whose control room will be based on virtualised, cloud ready technologies, done in collaboration with our partners, Alibaba and Intel. We are trying to replicate the way an OB functions with reducing the physical broadcast footprint to the minimum. This pilot program will be based at the curling venue. Depending on the results, we could use such a set-up at future Games. Not only does it offer greater flexibility and scalability, but the OB operations could be performed in a much more sustainable way than having a huge number of trucks coming from all around the world.
You’ve been outspoken in the past regarding the need for more equitable portrayal in sports broadcasting. How can OBS serve as an example for furthering athlete representation in terms of gender equity and diversity?
Beijing 2022 will feature the closest ratio of female to male participation at an Olympic Winter Games, with female athletes making up about 45% of those competing.
We are constantly updating our narratives in order to make sure that there is no stereotyping in the way we cover sports, because that has happened in the past across all sports. OBS needed to address this and drive the change, by being aware of unconscious bias in society where viewers expect sports to be presented differently for women and men. It is important that we keep on striving to strike the right balance and focus on what truly matters – athletes’ sporting prowess. We have also been discussing with the broadcasters to ensure there is a more gender balance in the primetime viewing Games slots.
At Beijing 2022, new mixed gender events will be introduced – snowboard cross mixed team, ski jumping mixed team event, short track mixed team relay, freestyle skiing mixed team aerials. Furthermore, the term ‘women’ will now be used across all sports, rather than ‘ladies.’
Sport media has traditionally been male dominated and we will continue to keep up our efforts to open new avenues and opportunities for females to work in sports broadcasting so that eventually we have a 50-50 split between women and men.
We are not there yet, but we are on the right path and would encourage our fellow broadcasters to follow our example. Then we will have the natural balance in the way we tell stories and produce images that reflect that balance. It is something close to my heart and, while we have definitely made progress, we still have a long way to go.