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Olympics: a TV show for 5 billion people

2016-08-22 06:47
Vinicius and Tom Olympic and Paralympic mascots (Getty Images)

Rio de Janeiro - If you tuned into the Olympics, whether on television or your smartphone, then you belong to a multi-billion dollar club of five billion people.

As the International Olympic Committee launches its Olympic Channel, here are five things to know about the biggest broadcasting operation on the planet, a combination of technology and business being raised by the digital revolution to ever new levels.

From New York to Tokyo and Buenos Aires to London people all over the world tuned in for the few seconds it took Jamaica's Usain Bolt to run the 100 meters.

To make that happen, the signal was sent by the Olympic Broadcasting Services, which is under control of the International Olympic Committee, and sent to four satellites, then beamed back down.

More than 7 000 technicians in blue T-shirts work in a center resembling mission control, with the walls covered in screens, to deliver footage from the Games filmed by 1 200 camera operators. More than 7 000 hours of content were beamed around the world.

The Olympics is about money as much as sport and one major exchange of money is in selling broadcast rights.

The rights-holders, as they are known, pay a premium for exclusive transmission of the Games. Non rights-holders are not even allowed to bring cameras into Olympic competition sites.

Although this exclusivity is shared among many different outlets, each tailors the content to its local market.

TV channels in Brazil or China or Jamaica provide a very different experience, focusing on their own country's athletes and favored sports to ensure a maximum audience -- and maximum price tag for commercials run alongside.

"Revenue for transmission rights keeps going up. At Rio, it came to more than $3.5 billion," said Yiannis Exarchos, CEO of Olympic broadcasting.

That business, plus sponsorship, oils the financial wheels of the huge sporting extravaganza. About nine percent of the rights revenues go to the IOC and the rest to international sporting federations and national Olympic committees.

"The world of sport, other than in a few very profitable disciplines, would have a lot of difficulty to survive without this," Exarchos said.

Exarchos said Rio was the first Internet Games, where online viewership has been "as big a factor as television."

After four days of competition in Rio, more people had watched Olympic images online than during the entire Olympics in London four years ago.

IOC president Thomas Bach said that NBC, which has the US rights, had recorded more than 2.25 billion live stream minutes on its website.

The digital revolution, in which tablets, cellphones and computers take on television, once seemed a big threat to the traditional broadcasters.

However, Exarchos said that things are settling down.

"Today, most (broadcasters) have their own digital platforms and we see that they're using these to bring the public to their traditional channels. Digital feeds traditional TV and vice versa," he said.

The newer factor is the "very aggressive emergence of some media, especially on social networks, that are completely changing the environment and represent a risk to traditional media," he said.

Rio is already being used as a test ground for future Olympics.

Japan's NHK channel has run tests in the 8K format, which is 16 times clearer than today's HD images. On a cinema screen the 100 meters race appears in incredibly sharp definition, giving the viewer the sensation of being there.

There is also virtual reality technology under development. A prototype in which special glasses are linked to a network of cameras in the Olympic swimming pool gives the viewer the ability to see something different with a turn of the head, as if he were seated in the arena.

In a few years it is expected that the goggles will put the viewer into the center of the action without leaving his sofa.

If broadcast technology gets that good, who will go through the expense and hassle of taking a plane and buying tickets to attend the Games? Will athletes of the future compete in empty stadiums?

"No," says Exarchos. "Nothing replaces the emotion of being there."

In fact television viewers also want spectators in the shot - they are part of the show.

"The half empty stadiums we saw at times in Rio are the worst thing you can have on screen," Exarchos said. "I'm in favor of smaller but completely filled stadiums."

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