Tokyo Olympics: OBS CEO Yiannis Exarchos on UHD, HDR, and Why the Cloud Matters
SVG’s coverage of the production of the Tokyo Olympics begins in earnest this week and we kick things off with a series of OBS executive interviews that have been provided by OBS to the media (our team will be on site next week and will interview them in the coming weeks). The series provides some insight into the planning efforts and the challenges that a team of 166 people, representing 30 nationalities, have faced while working first at the home office in Madrid and now in Tokyo. Later this week it will be up to an international workforce of approximately 8,100 personnel to deliver the live broadcast of the Games and support the RHBs’ operations.
Up first is Yiannis Exarchos is the CEO of Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS), the permanent host broadcast organisation created by the IOC. He was appointed to this position following the Olympic Games London 2012, after having served as a top executive for all Olympic host broadcasting organisations since Athens 2004.
In 2015 he was also named Executive Director of Olympic Channel Services (OCS), the corporate entity charged with creating and operating the IOC’s Olympic Channel, which was successfully launched in 2016 and now a key enabler and component of the IOC’s Digital Strategy. He is also a member of the OCS SL Board of Directors.
What sort of issues has the postponement of the Games caused and what has been the impact of the ongoing global pandemic on your re-scheduling efforts?
Obviously, the postponement of the Games took center stage in all of our planning. This had never happened in the history of the Games, so we were all treading new ground in adapting and reacting to this scenario. Over the course of the past year, we have been working closely with the IOC, the Japanese authorities and the Organizing Committee to establish and implement COVID-19 countermeasures and safe distancing protocols, in order to ensure the safety and security of everyone involved.
These measures have of course had an impact on the planning of the broadcast operation and RHB broadcast workflows, with some broadcasters opting for complete or partial remote production from their home country and sending less personnel on-site. This transition was however relatively smooth because OBS was ready to accommodate such remote production.
From a host broadcast point of view, we were exceptionally satisfied with the preparation we had at the beginning of 2020, and now that the Games are almost here in 2021, we are ahead of schedule in many areas.
We were pleased that, following the postponement of the Games, it was decided that there was no need to make any reductions to our original production plan. We will be delivering the same exceptionally high level of coverage to the broadcasters, as initially planned.
How important is the full rollout of filming and production in Ultra High Definition (UHD) High Dynamic Range (HDR)?
When you talk about Japan, tradition comes to mind along with technological innovation. For OBS, these Games are going to be a major milestone due to the advances we are introducing. It is going to be the first Olympic Games to be fully produced natively in UHD HDR.
The native Olympic standard coverage will be done in 4K and this will probably take most of the equipment to fully achieve this task, but we felt we had the support of the broadcasters for this transition at Tokyo 2020.
We will introduce several innovations, both visible, such as Virtual Reality content, and behind-the-scenes, such as Internet Protocol (IP)-enabled solutions. Also new for Tokyo will be multi-camera replays; we will go heavily in introducing analytics, especially in digital innovations. Several innovations will take place behind-the-scenes, which will make the world of broadcast more efficient.
For OBS, these Games will mark a major milestone. It will be the first Olympic Games to be fully produced natively in Ultra High Definition (UHD) High Dynamic Range (HDR).
OBS has been undergoing an intense digital transformation in the recent years and even developed its own cloud service. What will this bring to your operations?
We are introducing the OBS Cloud in partnership with Alibaba, as a way of transferring many of the operations that broadcasters usually use hardware for onto the cloud. That will make their operations far more efficient, far more productive, less costly and will mean they need less people on the ground. It is a major innovation. I note that the crisis has become an impressive catalyst for digital transformation across the globe, which in turn has accelerated the adoption of cloud technology, eventually resulting in its full use in production.
The introduction of cloud technologies in the way media works is of huge importance. We are lucky to have a top IOC partner in Alibaba, who is one of the major players on that front. Broadcast data-heavy production workflows are probably the holy grail of cloud technology, and the Olympic Games, because of its sheer size and complexity, is a unique opportunity to introduce it into our operations.
At Tokyo 2020, we will be producing approximately 9,500 hours of content. This is far more than the amount produced by a traditional international broadcaster in a year. We will be doing that in just over two weeks. Can you imagine what it takes to archive, to manage, to stream all this content? You need tons and tons of hardware for only a few weeks. This is where the scalability of cloud technology is seemingly the answer for us. In terms of broadcasting, it is still relatively early days in the full change to cloud technology, and Tokyo 2020 will mark a first step. The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics may then become a facilitator for its wider use.
The OBS Cloud solution comes from a collaboration between OBS and Alibaba to ensure the smooth and reliable delivery of the content produced for the cloud across the world. It is a new thing, but we believe that this can really be a driver of change to make broadcast operations far more agile, flexible and efficient.
The adoption of remote production for these Games, accelerated by the global pandemic, is a major change compared to previous editions. Broadcasters have been forced to adapt and invest in virtualization technologies to keep TV programming on-air, while dealing with the behind-the-scenes disruptions caused by the crisis. The media industry is unlikely ever to return to the ‘old’, pre-pandemic ways of producing content. These remote capabilities and cloud-based workflows will not go away and will undoubtedly grow further.
How conscious is OBS about the need to focus on sustainability in its operations?
The excellent cooperation between the Organizing Committee, the IOC and OBS has helped us be bolder in terms of innovation and our efforts to deliver the broadcast of the Games in a more sustainable way. The space we will be using in Tokyo for the IBC will be 20 per cent smaller than the one we used at Rio 2016 and the footprint for broadcast in Tokyo will be about 24 percent less than in Rio. This is not because we will be doing less, in fact we will be doing more, especially on the digital front.
This level of preparedness and attention to detail has allowed us to come up with new ways of remote working with the RHBs, a way of working that everyone feels comfortable in implementing. The need for this advancement was only made clearer in light of the coronavirus crisis.
We believe that OBS has been ahead of the curve in moving towards more virtualized workflows, therefore creating a more sustainable and more innovative Games.
How will OBS’s work be affected by the changes to the selling of rights agreements?
We live in times with huge changes to media, especially with the growth of digital media. To some extent, the Olympic Games will be affected, and the Olympic Games needs to take advantage of this opportunity. We already have a healthy mixture of huge traditional broadcasters who have covered the Games for many years and are planning their own futures, and then we have new digital players that are increasingly becoming involved and buying rights for the Games.
This presents an opportunity to produce content for a more diverse portfolio of stakeholders and is the reason why the sheer amount of content has risen exponentially in recent Games. It has been driven primarily by the need to produce additional content for digital and social media platforms and that growth will continue in Tokyo. That will create extra pressure for broadcast operations, but our technology does provide the chance to do things in a more efficient way.
Many traditional broadcasters are concerned with this change of direction in the world of media, but I’m not. It provides new opportunities for the Olympic Games to be experienced in new ways, especially by a younger audience, and we are trying to do whatever is possible to exploit this opportunity.
Of course, traditional television will remain for several years and it will remain an area where most people experience the Games. They expect nothing but the best, and we must ensure OBS produces the best both in our broadcast and digital production.