Live From Rio 2016: Sotiris Salamouris Says OBS Team Exceeding Expectations In Massive Production Effort
"We are doing everything that is practically possible in broadcast television."
As the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics nears the end of their first week, for the team at Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS), the challenge now is to keep the massive production effort (the OBS team alone is more than 7,100 people strong) moving smoothly. Sotiris Salamouris, chief technology officer, OBS, spent some time talking with SVG Editorial Director Ken Kerschbaumer about a production effort that is breaking records of its own with respect to personnel involved and amount of content created.
I guess the first question is, how are things going so far?
This is certainly the biggest and most complex Olympics that we have ever had, and the size is just mind-blowing. We have reached a point where we are doing everything that is practically possible in broadcast television. On one hand, I am really super happy that things are happening and our plans are being implemented. After months and years of scheduling and planning, this is really, really happening.
But we are still at the beginning of this process. There are still external factors and all sorts of things that can happen, so we need to remain very alert. We certainly have plans to deal with emergencies, but whether we would need to implement those contingency plans at any single moment is always a guess. Now it is a case of, we are crossing our fingers but still very happy to see that our plans have been proved out as we are delivering services to broadcasters. We are calming down a bit, following our operational plans, and [striving to] be certain that everything goes as planned.
We’ve spoken during every Olympics since 2008. About a year ahead, I ask whether you are concerned about the next Olympics because, invariably, that is when the media starts reporting about how the city and venues aren’t ready, that things won’t be ready, and it will be a disaster. How do you and your team manage to stay calm, because you always project confidence that everything will work out?
Apart from the Olympic magic that is almost like divine intervention that seems to happen every time, there is a lot of planning that considers local conditions. It’s not like we live in a bubble. When we are planning the Games in Rio, we are planning for the Games in Rio and not planning for the Games in Tokyo or Beijing. What I mean by that is, we consider the local conditions, the potential challenges in a country, and also the potential benefits in a country. It’s such a big project, but yet it is also confined in a way, because there are always conditions that are very specific to the city, like accommodations, traffic, the way power is delivered, weather, and other things.
So you don’t try to impose an “Olympic way” on a city or culture.
Exactly. If you try to impose an Olympic way, you will fail. You cannot change a country, and you can’t come in and say there is only one way to do something. It’s a very specific mindset, where we plan within the context of the host city. And that allows us to adjust and reduce in some areas and add in others and do our best within our budgets.
For example, I can’t say I am surprised about the traffic conditions in Rio because it is a known factor. But there are also very positive things: we have found very enthusiastic people … people who have no problem showing up at 3:00 in the morning.
When you were planning for these Games, what was attractive about having the IBC here in Barra?
The IBC for an Olympics is a complex beast. First of all, it is the biggest of all IBCs, and it is at least twice as big as the IBC for the World Cup. So it’s a very difficult project and has several parameters to be considered. Together with the organizing committee and the government, we look for the best options for the location of the IBC. Location certainly makes a difference in terms of convenience for the broadcaster, and it also makes a difference for transport conditions for the entire city. For example, we could be 10 or 20 km away from the city and venues, and that would not be a problem because today, with communications, we can get our signals to and from wherever. But, because the IBC is the hub of the broadcast operations and it has 10,000 broadcasters that need to move constantly between the IBC and the venues, that can create a special burden to the traffic system. So getting the IBC close to the Games has an operational benefit to everyone in the city.
You mentioned this is the most complex Olympics. What are two or three ways it is the most complex?
It is the most complex because of the demand to create, produce, and distribute more content: we are creating close to 9,000 hours of content, both live and postproduced, to broadcasters. And the thirst for content has increased: broadcasters have hundreds of outlets, including digital distribution, pay TV, free to air. We are in a special moment where everyone is trying to push more and more content to the audience. The demand is there to provide more from whatever is happening.
It’s also the most complex because there are two more sports here, rugby and golf, and that means four more content-production hubs that need to be integrated with the IBC. Also, our internal postproduction capability has increased; there is the Olympic News Channel, which is on-air 24/7; and we are also continuously creating stories that are available to broadcasters through the multichannel distribution system. … And then there is VR. All of that requires more-complex workflows because the system has to put the proper metadata with the content so that the production teams and rightsholders can find what they want as efficiently as possible. And the broadcasters want more access to live and stored content, and there is basically more and more demand for content related to the Olympics.
One important expanded feature is the Multi Clip Feed Service (MCF), which provides everything from crowd shots to athletes arriving and highlights. How many channels of clip feeds did you have in London?
There were none. It was introduced in Sochi, where we had just one feed. And now we have 10. It proved very successful in Sochi, and the content is available during the competition as well as later on.
How do you go from one to 10 in just one Games?
It’s all about nice artistic shots, which are not critical to the competition but are happening around the competition, like super-high-speed shots and the athletes arriving at the venue. It’s a parallel stream of content available during the multilateral distribution.
There are up to 10 concurrent streams that are available for 15 or more sports, and the broadcasters can access it very quickly, even during the event, with their systems. Or they can use it during postproduction, when they can pick and choose the clips they want.
Is a different production team doing that and looking for those sort of artistic shots?
Correct. [That] production team is on the truck with the live-production team, but they are operating independently so they don’t interrupt the competition coverage.
Why is this new expanded MCF important?
In the old days, a lot of this kind of content would be lost. We would have recorded some of it in the truck, and it would have been available after the event as a small highlights package. We have so many cameras deployed on these events — an average of around 30 cameras and upwards of 50 for the larger events — that it is understandable that very little of all the content actually makes it to air live. But the broadcaster still might be interested in that un-aired content, and that is what the MCF is all about: taking those nice shots, putting them into a feed that is created concurrent with the live coverage, and then sending that feed back to the IBC and then out to the broadcasters.
What I find fascinating is that, if this were 2000 and OBS or anyone wanted to create 9,000 hours of content, it would have been impossible. How much of this growth in content creation is due to the technology that enables you to create 9,000 hours of content without having a production team of 45,000 people?
It’s all because of technology; there would be no other way. Physically, we have reached our largest size: in terms of just clean space for broadcasters, there is 55,000 sq. meters. It’s massive. Technology allows us to be efficient. But, even with those efficiency gains, the demand still surpasses those gains.
How would you describe the IBC for those who are unfamiliar with Olympic operations?
We have four different kinds of space in the IBC all mixed together in a complex maze. You have the studios; the technical rooms, where we host our systems; the operational rooms, where people and equipment mix; production areas with people sitting at desks. All four of those areas have competing requirements. The studio needs to be quiet and also have enough air-conditioning and power; technical rooms need to be super cool with a huge amount of power; operational areas have to balance between having people and equipment in the same space and creating an environment where the people don’t suffer because they are near the equipment; in the other administration areas, they want to be comfortable and able to do their work.
If you are building a broadcast facility on your own, you can organize that and put things where you want them. But, when it comes to the space for an Olympics, where we have 140 different broadcasters, each one of them is an independent channel, but they are all mixed together. So everything is mixed up with everything, and that makes it very difficult to design to make sure we can make them happy with respect to noise, power, air-conditioning. It’s a very difficult project.
This year, it seems that the studio sizes here are a little smaller than previously, which is opening up more flexibility in the IBC.
That is a good point. The studios are getting smaller although the demand is still there. But that makes our life a little bit easier and puts less pressure on the building structure.
At the same time, there is also more demand for studio space outside of the IBC. We have two TV buildings here, [with] 10 studios in one and 16 studios in the other. One of those is here in the Olympic Park; the other, at Copacabana. Until Sochi, we had the need for only one of those sorts of studio facilities — the first was in Beijing — and now we have two.
Of course, that puts pressure on us to make sure we have remote operations at those facilities, safeguards for power, building the whole temporary structure, and, of course, communications to connect those buildings. We have a huge connection environment to connect them.
One interesting change in the Games is how data connectivity has grown. You can already see that many broadcasters are moving from just having audio and video feeds to having IP connectivity to be used as they please for either live needs or file transfer. So this is huge.
A lot of people outside of this place don’t have a full understanding of the relationship between OBS and the rightsholders. Can you explain that push and pull between what they want and need and where you might want to go?
It’s a continuous handshake. We like to be proactive and talk to them in order to do more because, as the host, we have a mission to satisfy their needs in two aspects: producing content for them and delivering technical services. In that second aspect, we may be an integrator, a telecommunications organization, or anything they want us to be for them. We have to balance those two aspects, but they also require different types of skills.
If you’re a producer, you need to be creative, edgy, and forward-looking with what you want to do. If you are in technical services, you have to be more about securing quality of services and being engineering-minded.
Speaking just for the technical side, we are in constant communication with broadcasters. We have broadcasters who are very sophisticated who will take advantage of all of our services and the latest and more complex technologies. And then we have other broadcasters who are still operating older technologies. The good news is, there are ways to satisfy everyone.
For example, in this IBC, we have moved all our signal delivery to fiber for the first time. Even in Sochi, if you walked through the IBC, you would see massive cable trays with coaxial cable. That is gone now as we have full fiber delivery. To do that, we had to do it in a way that involved testing with the broadcasters, helping them secure equipment that was compatible. Now we are in a situation where we have one less problem, as dealing with copper cabling was cumbersome and had limitations.
And now that we have this fiber infrastructure, we can push to them whatever. Do you want additional video? Fine, no problem. Do you want additional IP-based connectivity or service from us? Then fine, we can do it.
One of the new things this year is VR, and you are doing a lot of it. Do you have a team dedicated to that?
We do. At this stage, we are at a crossroads. We have a new, interesting technology, and there is a lot of worldwide interest in this. What will be our contribution? There is not, yet, proved operational schemes for VR. So there is a new medium, a new experience, and all of us as an industry are figuring out what to do with that. And then we have the Olympics. At this stage, none of the broadcasters really has a clear plan of what to do.
What can we do? We can offer them examples of how VR works in different sports, different angles, and different conditions. No one is going to build a VR channel and use this content commercially, but everybody is interested in learning how to do it. So why not have us service the industry by providing a wide perspective of VR? This is so that all of us, and the audience, will learn what works and doesn’t work.
Golf and rugby are two new events this year, and golf is starting today. It’s a complex sport. How do you go about getting a production and technical team ready?
We are trying to get the most competent teams related to a particular sport. It’s not about being just a good producer; you need to be a good producer for the sport. The skills we want are specific, and we can find them only if we look worldwide. And if those skills can coincide with one of our broadcaster partners, even better. That happens in many instances: about two-thirds of our teams originate from the rightsholders.
With golf, we have cooperated with NBC because they have huge experience doing golf in the U.S. and they are a partner on the Olympics. But, when the production team is working for OBS, they are working for OBS and will work side-by-side with the U.S. unilateral team because. when you are producing the multilateral feed, you are no longer American, Latin American, or Chinese.
Golf is challenging for us both production-wise and technically. The golf course has a fiber delivery system that is very similar to what we have here in the park, with fiber that is buried and surfaces in certain areas. There is also a system for picking up RF cameras. It’s certainly very complex, and it’s a multifeed sport.
Obviously, your team has worked tremendously hard to get things to where they are today. What are your thoughts on their performance?
They exceed expectations because we have a continuing increase in the size and complexity of our work but, somehow, and this is the magic, it is being done with the same amount of people. OBS has not grown since it was created. We’re pretty much the same number of people, and the core team has managed to become more efficient, make much more-sophisticated plans, and be able to deal with this increased workload and complexity.
Because the time between one Olympics and the next does not expand, I am very, very happy with our personnel. We have built a fantastic dream team that not only can deal with the increased complexity and size of the event but also the significant transition that is happening in the broadcast industry. What we knew about broadcast technology is disappearing, and something else is happening. We now have many people in our team with mixed skills of broadcast engineering and broadcast IT engineering. They feel very comfortable working with SDI and a typical router but also are comfortable working with IP networking. And for that I am grateful.
The Games started last week. When is that moment that you and the team feel like “we’re off.” Is it the Opening Ceremony? And can you step back and really take it all in, or are you always with fingers crossed?
We have to be with fingers crossed because something can happen at any time. Of course, as human beings, there is a point where we are happy, relaxed, and proud, and we have those moments. A very important moment is the Opening Ceremony, because it is one single event that everyone is watching. And all of us exhale at the end of it. But the first day is also very difficult, because, within three or four hours, there are 15 events hitting us. That puts a lot of pressure here in the IBC for master control, [which is] coordinating the feeds, and then communications, because things are happening in each sport. After that first day, we will know we are okay.