London Olympics IBC: Gateway to the Games — and to a New Digital Era of Production

The International Broadcast Center at events like the Olympics and World Cup tends to look fairly similar from event to event. It’s usually in a rather large building (convention centers are always a nice option). Inside, there is an abundance of sheetrock and plaster board (hopefully painted, but not always). And wide corridors are complete with cable trays and industrial-grade carpeting designed as much to make it easy to wheel in thousands of racks of equipment as to give tired feet a break.

Those corridors are also lined with double-wide doors, each a gateway to a different broadcast entity. Passing through them can sometimes be a cultural learning experience, often involves crossing a language barrier, and always gets a smile and nod in response to a request to see how a given nation produces and delivers a world-class sports event.

The London Olympics IBC was no exception.

It measured more than 48,000 square meters (enough space to park five jumbo jets on each level) and housed 560,000 meters of cable, simultaneous data throughput of 1.4 terabytes, and enough “Sorry no more pins!” signs to make one wonder when the Olympic-pin movement transitioned from welcome diversion to overwhelming annoyance.

Multichannel Distribution Service sent out 10 “ready-to-air” channels and the Olympic News Channel via satellite.

But corridor after corridor offered always interesting and tantalizing technical morsels. On floor one, there was, of course, the Olympic Broadcast Services (OBS) hub, a massive server and control-room facility behind clear floor-to-ceiling windows that allowed tours without disturbing the ingest of feeds and signals from as many as 42 simultaneous sports events and mixed zones.

Then there was the OBS theater, offering a day full of 3D and Ultra HD screenings that proved that broadcast television has a few more tricks up its sleeve. The first floor also featured NBC, BBC, Channel 9/Foxtel Australia, three Korean broadcasters, ESPN Latin America, and EBU Operations.

Floors two and three followed a similar pattern but with many more, smaller facilities (the exceptions being the areas claimed by Canada’s CTV, Germany’s ARD and ZDF, China’s CCTV, and a Japanese Consortium).

But, for all the technological diversity, there were some consistent themes. As always, the core OBS facility dictated much of what could and couldn’t happen throughout the rest of the building. This year, a solid, end-to-end all-HD and tapeless workflow on the part of OBS gave new flexibility to rightsholders inside the IBC (and beyond).

And that is where the story of the London Olympics in technology begins.

OBS: The Workflow
After making the big leap into HD for the Beijing Olympics, OBS this year took its offering to an even higher level, with more than 90 Full HD feeds created during the event.

The OBS team had been on-site since March, when most of the full-time departments moved into the IBC and the venue teams began battling the elements. Internally at the IBC, a massive EVS server handled ingest of all signals from the venues as well as an additional 40-plus mixed-zone feeds. Signals came into the IBC and onto the servers, where a team of loggers would add metadata into clips (the clips also had metadata automatically brought in from the Olympic Data Feed). Those clips were then available to broadcasters both inside and outside the IBC.

OBS also offered 10 “ready-to-air” channels and the Olympic News Channel via satellite for countries looking to cut production costs. That service, called the Multichannel Distribution Service (MDS), was an important reason that broadcasters were able to develop new workflows and production techniques for the Games.

The massive server and control-room facility at OBS handled feeds and signals from 42 simultaneous sports events and mixed zones.

Outside of the IBC, OBS worked closely with a number of broadcasters to produce the events. The BBC, for example, handled football, boxing, rowing, canoe sprint, and tennis. YLE Finland was involved with the ceremonies and worked alongside SVT (Sweden) and NOS (Netherlands) for athletics. CCTV served up badminton, table tennis, and fencing (as well as fencing and riding for the pentathlon). TVE (Spain) was responsible for the swimming marathon (OBS itself handled the rest of aquatics), canoe slalom, and the triathlon. Cycling events were produced by NOS and VRT (Belgium) while SVT covered hockey and Fuji (Japan) handled judo. Indoor volleyball was served up by ICRT (Taiwan) while ERT (Greece) did the heavy lifting for weightlifting. And OBS produced equestrian, handball, sailing, shooting, swimming for the pentathlon, beach volleyball, and wrestling.

As usual, OBS also offered a number of production enhancements. Along with the 90 high-quality HD services for broadcast needs, there were two compression profiles in IP for new-media needs: 24.7 Mbps for HD, 2.4 Mbps for SD.

And a 3D production unit comprising three fully equipped OB vans and six separate ENG teams produced more than 230 hours of 3D content. Live coverage of the Opening Ceremony didn’t wow, but events like the canoe slalom showed the power of 3D as, for the first time ever, viewers could see the relative distance between the gates. Other impressive productions included track and field, gymnastics, and trampoline gymnastics.

A first for a major sports event was the use of next-next-generation format Super Hi-Vision, which offers eight times HD resolution as well as 22.2 surround sound. Produced in cooperation with NHK and the BBC, it was used for eight days of live coverage and the ceremonies and was available for viewing in theaters in the UK as well as in Washington, DC, and Japan.

OBS also used more than 40 super-slow-speed cameras this year, capturing events at more than 600 frames per second.

The Rightsholders
While OBS did its typically solid job of covering all the action, the broadcasters themselves also offered innovations. And, collectively, they pointed to a big-event–production future when more and more technical staff might have the opportunity to work from home.

The profiles of various networks in this section highlight some of the different philosophies that were at work. But five realities are forcing changes in big-event production:

1. There is only so much space at the IBC
With more and more broadcasters on-site, the IOC constantly faces the squeeze of making sure new rightsholders have the opportunity to produce the event the way they would like. Increasingly, that means lessening the number of credentials available to all rightsholders and shrinking the physical space in the IBC.

2. Fewer people on-site mean more people at home
So, with rightsholders having fewer personnel within the venues, they have two options: rely on personnel working within the city and around the event but outside the IBC (plenty of them did that this year from production studios and operations scattered all over London) or keep them home. And many did the latter as well because…

3. Big pipes and services like MDS change the equation
The ability to have Olympic content delivered directly from the IBC to a broadcast center nearly anywhere in the world is a reality. IP- and file-based workflows are now ubiquitous among the majority of rightsholders on hand at the IBC. These methods do, of course, have their costs. So some broadcasters (such as Australia) preferred to produce program signals on-site and send home a complete signal that could go straight to air. The reason? Sending 30 or 40 HD feeds via fiber would simply become cost-prohibitive. On the other hand, others, such as France Télévisions, produced little on-site and even deployed cameras controlled from the broadcast center in Paris.

4. Fewer technicians = more production
One interesting trend was that broadcasters that kept technical and master-control staff at home did not necessarily slash the number of onsite personnel. Instead, they brought more ENG crews, reporters, and producers so that they could improve the quality of their storytelling around the Games. And that was important because…

5. An onsite presence is still required to tell the story properly
As much as broadcasters love the idea of slashing travel and hotel budgets, the reality is, the athletes are at the event. The fans are at the event. And, ultimately, the excitement is at the event. So a studio operation distant by not only miles but time zones becomes less attractive for athletes to visit. Perhaps most important, it can have viewers asking, “Why aren’t they there?”

Ultimately, the London Olympics will be remembered as the beginning of an era. An era when IP-based and file-based workflows matured. An era when broadcast operations could easily expand outside the IBC. And an era when 3D-production techniques proved their current state of maturity and Ultra HD proved it can actually be put to practical use.

They were, simply put, the Digital Games.

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