Live from London: 64 years later, BBC Sport makes television history once again
In 1948, the Games of the XIV Olympiad in London became the first-ever Olympics to offer live television coverage transmitted to the home. As the host broadcaster, the BBC delivered 60-plus hours of programming — including the first multicamera Olympics-event coverage — to more than a half million viewers within a 50-mile radius of London. Sixty-four years later, the Games have returned to London, and the BBC has once again taken a giant leap forward in the evolution of Olympic television production.
“We started from scratch with this [Olympics] because it is obviously a very unique situation,” says BBC Technical Executive Charlie Cope. “We had to evaluate from the ground up as to how we wanted to do it, and that was all driven by the editorial vision.”
By the time the Closing Ceremony concludes on Sunday, BBC Sport will have delivered more than 2,500 total hours of live Olympic programming over 17 days (1,000 more than from Beijing). In addition to 18 hours of coverage per day on BBC1 and BBC3, the BBC is allowing UK viewers to watch every minute of the Games live via 24 dedicated “Red Button” channels (available to Sky, Virgin, and Freesat subscribers) that are also streamed to the Web and to mobile devices and tablets.
The Manchester move
To deliver this historic amount of coverage, the BCC was forced to take on an equally historic task: preparing for the largest UK sporting event in recent memory while relocating the bulk of its broadcast operations 200 miles north of its storied London headquarters. Over the past two years, BBC Sport has migrated much of its manpower and infrastructure to the new BBC North facility at MediaCity UK in Salford, Manchester, as part of an overall cost-cutting move by the BBC.
“Obviously, we have gotten a bit of flak, with people asking how we could even think about moving to Manchester when we are about to do the biggest sporting event we have ever done, in London, but that was just the way things were,” says Cope. “But, in terms of the [technology], we have taken a lot of what we learned from North and played it into the systems here.”
At the venues
In addition to taking in the OBS host feeds from each venue, the BBC has deployed more than 100 unilateral cameras, including about 20 ENG teams. SIS is providing the bulk of BBC’s mobile-production facilities.
“We have our own OB [truck] at Sailing, but all the rest are primarily mix zones,” says Cope. “We have an operation at Rowing and Gymnastics, but it doesn’t have an OB truck. All the feeds are sent back here, and we do the mix here. We would usually have an OB truck down there for a normal gymnastics [production], but that is one of the ways we have tried to avoid doing massive duplication of [resources].”
The BBC is providing commentary for all BBC1, BBC3, and dedicated-stream feeds, as well as for much of the host-feed commentary for OBS’s MDS (multichannel-distribution) feeds and its partners, such as NBC and Channel Nine.
“It is one of the most complicated parts of [producing] the 24 interactive streams: you’re not just doing your own streams; you are also trying to provide commentaries that are enabling up to five different platforms in some cases,” says Cope. “That is a major coordination issue.”
At the IBC
The BBC has erected a massive operation at the International Broadcast Centre (IBC) in London, nearly doubling its staff from Vancouver and Beijing and establishing a sprawling infrastructure that links directly back to BBC North.
BBC Sport takes in the dozens of OBS and unilateral feeds at the IBC, where three control rooms equipped with Sony MVS6000 switchers handle the switching and commentary-control operations. Two additional control rooms located at BBC North receive the 24 dedicated streams — 12 apiece — and distribute these feeds out to the Red Button channels and the Web. This pair of control rooms is also responsible for the FreeView Channels, which run editorial content throughout each day.
The BBC is also running two separate graphics operations: one at the IBC for live output and one up north that inserts graphics for all its sports-news content, the 24 dedicated streams, and online VOD content. Deltatre is also serving as a third-party graphics vendor.
The core to this workflow is the “multiplatform hub” at the IBC, which monitors all the incoming streams and determines when a story is about to break and needs to be covered immediately.
“This way, whenever a big event happens, the coordination of all our crews gets managed from that single hub so we can allocate our resources efficiently across all the different platforms,” says Cope. “It is a critical part of trying to bring all this technology together and making sure that the workflows support that technology.”
Postproduction and archive
The IBC postproduction-system design is based on the BBC North workflow and comprises three main elements: server, ingest, and playout. An EVS IPDirector feeds content into the WIK (work-in-progress) bucket, which is built on a Harmonic Omneon MediaGrid. All 21 on-site edit suites can access this content and publish it back to the playout servers.
This system is also linked to BBC’s radio, news-service, and Olympic-venue operations to allow file-based exchange among the various operations.
In addition, BBC North, which uses Apple Final Cut Pro editing systems, can view proxies of all content on the IBC servers and request a hi-res file when needed.
In terms of archiving, BBC Sport brought approximately 1,000 hours of archival content to the IBC and loaded it on its main servers for production of the Games, but it will leave with much more than that. Cope and company are running a constant rolling archive of all host, edit, and ENG material, meaning that they will have about 1,500 hours of file-based archive to take up north by the time the Games conclude. All logging is handled at BBC by a team of 30 loggers synched with the IBC archival system.
More than halfway through the Games, BBC’s Olympics are a ratings goldmine, and, while Cope is proud of his team’s efforts, he always has an eye on the future.
“My primary role for the last two years has been to get [BBC North] up and running, so it’s been a busy two years,” he says. “But there is plenty more to do with a busy 2014 [ahead]. You always come out of these big events with more [production tools], and we are always experimenting with things. Without question, we have learned a lot about working across multiple venues.”