This summer's 29th Olympic Games in Beijing is the excuse for a wide range of innovations in sports broadcasting. The most obvious of these will be the concentration of high-definition broadcasts coming out of the International Broadcasting Center (IBC) in Beijing - the event has often been referred to as the “first HD Olympics”. However there are also important changes to the platforms that the Games will be viewed on this time around.
BBC Sport Interactive
BBC Sport will be broadcasting around 2,750 hours of Olympics coverage from Beijing, which works out at around 300 hours on BBC1 and 2, plus 2,450 hours on BBCi. No surprise then that BBC Sport Interactive head Ben Gallop says that the Beijing Olympics is his team's biggest event of the year. “Particularly now that there's going to be no British interest in Euro 2008,” he adds wryly. “We're planning to do as much as we can across all our platforms in order to offer as much choice as possible to the audience.”
Gallop points out that the time difference between China and the UK means that the traditional concept of sports fans sitting in front of the TV watching the Olympics all day is not feasible for UK audiences. “The ability to be able to offer content to our audiences when and where they want it is obviously key here,” he says. “We're planning to do lots of different things on the web, on mobile and on interactive TV.”
Obviously BBC Sport has considerable experience in multiplatform delivery. The main innovation this time around, according to Gallop, will be simultaneous streaming of the action on the web. “We'll be simulcasting all the interactive TV streams,” he says. “It means that people in the UK with a broadband connection will be able to choose from up to six different sports live on the web. And they'll have running commentary in text format right next to the live video.”
“We take a feed into TV Centre and it's put straight onto the web from there using Niagra Pro for live streaming and Flip Factory from Telestream for clips,” says Gallop. As it's a simulcast, Gallop says the online service will be identical to “red button” interactive TV. “It's relatively straightforward for us now to replicate on the web what we show on our interactive service, but the big technical difference this time is the use of Flash.”
Gallop explains that integrating this rich media streaming technology into the existing content management system which drives the BBC site has been a big challenge, not least because the site will continue to offer streaming video using competing systems like Windows Media and Real Player.
However, the move to Flash brings several benefits to the viewer, according to Gallop. “It means we can offer a more seamless user experience,” he says. “There isn't as much buffering [a delay as the video stream updates]. You don't launch a separate player. What's really important is that, particularly with sports, you want to integrate your video as much as possible with the other elements of what you do.”
Mobile will be significant too. “People won't necessarily be at home when a lot of the events are happening,” says Gallop. “If they're out and about we can offer them a full website service on Wap-enabled phones. For the first time we'll be able to offer them clips and live Flash video streaming from the Olympics.”
Gallop also reveals that there will be packaged highlights, short clips from across the multitude of sporting events, and the BBC iPlayer will provide a seven-day catch-up service. During the Olympics there will be dozens of people working at Television Centre to turn the clips around and provide constant editorial coverage for the interactive platforms.
Although the Olympics is still some months in the future, the BBC project has been in development for six months. The Beijing event is the big one, but the technology will be rolled out in stages for live testing at the summer's other sporting events - Euro 2008, Wimbledon and the Golf Open. “It's staggered well for us,” says Gallop. “By the time Beijing comes around, we'll be up to speed with everything.”
The Olympic Games broadcasting rights are divided up by country, so BBC Sport interactive has to ensure its content will only be viewable in the UK. “We have experience of providing a geo-blocked service [based on the IP address of UK broadband service providers] for the Athens Olympics and the Turin Winter Olympics, so we're well placed now to meet that challenge,” says Gallop.
In the US, NBC Universal owns the exclusive media rights to the Olympics, which it refers to as “television's most powerful property”. For Beijing, NBCU will present a total of 3,600 hours of coverage, both on traditional broadcast outlets such as its flagship NBC channel and online at www.nbcolympics.com, the company's dedicated Olympics site.
NBCU's Olympics coverage
For Beijing 2008, a range of innovative features based on Microsoft's Silverlight streaming technology will boost this well-established site. With an updated interface by US-based design company Schematic, the new technology on the site has been developed by NBC and Microsoft as a showcase for the latter's rich media technology.
Once revamped with Silverlight, nbc-olympics.com aims to deliver 2,200 hours of live event video coverage, with more than 20 simultaneous live video streams at peak times, as well as more than 3,000 hours of on-demand video content, including full-event replays, highlights, features, interviews and encore packages. Silverlight will power an enhanced playback mode that gives users the option of an HD-quality full-screen viewing experience, while metadata-driven text overlays will give fans access to a wealth of related content.
In addition there will be live video alerts so fans can stay connected to the events and teams, as well as social networking features that enable viewers to share aspects of their Olympic experience with friends.
“NBC Olympics has always taken the lead in bringing Olympics fans immersive experiences through in-depth analysis and leading technology,” says Perkins Miller, senior vice-president of digital media for NBC sports and Olympics. “For this year we're doing something that has never been done, and I think it's the most ambitious online project that's ever been attempted.”
One of the unique points about the service will be the multiple live streams on the site running simultaneously in mini-windows (index views) alongside the main screen, with the ability to switch the focus between windows. There will also be “picture in picture”-style features.
Miller said NBC is committed to delivering high-quality video content, so will be offering an option to expand the viewing area up to a HD 16 x 9 format. “We couldn't shirk our responsibilities and deliver video that was grainy,” he said. “It's going to be a dynamic, immersive experience. You'll also be able to rewind and review the play you missed, read athlete biogs and look at stats.” He adds: “You'll be able to consume any piece of data that we've assigned around this video to give you more context, to connect you more with the experience.”
There's obviously a lot of technology supporting the broadcasts, with a dizzying array of services working behind the scenes. Quokka, contracted by NBC to perform real-time updates of its Olympic web page, will be based in the IBC. Similarly, Red Bee Media will provide a constantly updating information graphics package for the BBC, the sixth consecutive time that the agency will have provided such a role at the Olympics.
Red Bee head of sport content services Andy Townsend says the agency's resource system takes information from the Olympics data system, puts it in order and attaches it to the broadcaster's channel. “Red Bee's challenge is to make sure the viewer gets the correct information as it happens for all events taking place during the Olympics,” says Townsend. “Client expectations are consistent with the Olympic motto of ‘faster, stronger, higher' and so this year the agency will be making this information available for HD viewers and transmitting a consistent experience for online users. Red Bee is also in charge of graphic design for information graphics.”
These info-graphics could be about schedules, competitors, results, medal tables, news, biographies or general stats. However, says Townsend, the graphics are just the tip of the iceberg: “the challenge is to get the results and information published quickly, accurately and reliably with visual clarity, meaning and context.”
Digital Rapids will provide media encoding, transcoding and streaming systems to NBC for the network's internet coverage from Beijing. The streams will be primarily encoded from video feeds into web-friendly streams through the DRC-Stream systems. Streams will be encoded in the VC-1 compression format compatible with Silverlight. The encoded live streams will also be archived for viewers to watch on-demand.
Meanwhile, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV will be making use of two Proset virtual studios from real-time graphics specialist Orad for the presentation of the Olympics - one in traditional Chinese TV style and another more dynamic set, aimed at a youth audience. Orad's Maestro system will provide CCTV with fast news graphics and highlights from the Olympic games while the company's 3D Play channel branding solution will enable CCTV to offer on-air graphics, comparisons, charts and other elements.
EVS is also gearing up to make this a memorable HD experience. As well as a wide offering of live outside broadcast HD technology, the company has supplied the IBC with an innovative full HD Media Server. Based on a cluster of EVS HD XT production servers, this piece of kit will ingest all live feeds from different venues, log and add descriptive metadata to all the content, allow the production teams from the host broadcaster and rights holder broadcasters to browse and retrieve media, create clips and send them to their respective post infrastructures. The footage will be simultaneously recorded and available in both high and low-res formats.
Whatever the outcome of the action on the track and field, there's no doubt that the world's broadcasters aim to turn it into a multiplatform spectacle.
The battle over rich media streaming
It's interesting that two of global broadcasting's biggest players, NBC and the BBC, are each pioneering the use of two of the main rivals in streaming rich media. The Olympics are sure to prove a test case for the performance of both these web browser plug-ins.
“Silverlight (pictured) is the galvanizing force in Microsoft's digital media strategy,” says Microsoft group product manager, Silverlight Media Steve Sklepowich. “It combines the power of Windows Media, Microsoft's ‘.net' programming model and server platform to create a comprehensive solution that meets the needs of content owners, enterprises, designers, developers and consumers with tangible business benefits.
“Sports fans need a reliable, crisp and on-demand experience. When you're watching a game, the last thing you want is for the stream to stutter,” he adds.
Meanwhile, according to Steve Allison, technical evangelist at Adobe, Adobe's Flash and Flash Media Server 3 technologies are providing broadcasters such as the BBC with a new arsenal of tools and capabilities that allow them to create high quality, interactive video solutions in less time and with more impact.
“This is particularly important for live events such as sports where, for example, the ability to provide live video footage combined with real-time data, as well as branding overlays, is crucial,” says Allison. “Adobe's adoption of the H.264 and AAC standards means that high-definition, full-screen playback of live events can be watched as they happen. Already we are seeing our broadcast customers combine live footage with real-time game and competitor information, so users can pause the video, explore the statistics, then return to the action.”
Allison continues: “The 2008 Olympics is an area where our technology is going to find particular resonance. This year the expectations of the viewing public about HD quality, on-demand timing, and [multiplatform] convenience, mean that broadcasters will have a job to satisfy them.”