More than a game: broadcasting the Olympics

The 2012 London Olympics will be the biggest televised sporting event of our time. Brooke Hemphill discovers the logistical challenges and technical requirements of producing the event.

From July 27 to August 12, the Australian media will go sport crazy as the Games of the XXX Olympiad, aka the 2012 London Summer Olympics, unfold. The games will be the most televised sporting event of our time as broadcasters look to master every manner of technology at their disposal.At the front of the media pack are those who hold the official rights for the broadcast and here on Aussie soil the three key commercial players are Channel Nine, Foxtel and the Macquarie Radio Network. Also broadcasting from the event is ABC Radio. At the centre of it all is Gary Fenton, head of the Olympic Unit.

The International Broadcast Centre at London’s Olympic headquarters

“This is the largest off shore broadcast in Australian television history,” says Fenton. In order to secure the rights, he explains: “Nine and Foxtel decided to make a joint bid to the International Olympic Committee four years ago.” They won the bid before negotiating with the Macquarie Radio Network to give them access.

The modus operandi of the IOC dictates that a representative for the broadcasters must facilitate the relationship with the committee and other Olympic organisations. “They seek a gatekeeper for each of these contracts,” says Fenton, who is ideally qualified for the role of heading up the Olympic Unit having worked for the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games in 2000 and covering a number of Olympics in association with the Seven and Nine networks. His job entails overseeing a number of initiatives key to the broadcast including the build of studios and facilities as well as the all – important accreditation of personnel.

“The Olympics have gotten big, bigger and bigger,” Fenton explains. “Accreditations are at a premium.” Foxtel alone has a crew of 150 they are taking to London to facilitate the 3,200 hours of content it will broadcast on eight different channels as well as streaming via a tablet app. There are only 400 passes to divvy up between the various broadcasters and it is therefore necessary for the networks to share resources. The Macquarie Radio Network, who in addition to broadcasting the event on Sydney station 2GB will also provide content to 80 regional stations, plans to share behind the scenes staff with ABC Radio and Fox Sports. On-air talent is also multitasking with commentator Ray Hadley calling the swimming for both Foxtel and 2GB.

It’s a similar situation with Nine and Foxtel as the two broadcasters share their commentary team, including Eddie McGuire, who will present from the studio for Foxtel as well as calling specific events for Nine. “I’m hosting the Olympics for Nine and for Foxtel and I’ll be doing my radio show over there so I’ll be pretty busy,” McGuire told Encore in March.

A number of local technical staff will also be hired on the ground in London and tonnes of equipment needs to be shipped to the city. “Logistically, this is an enormous undertaking. Our team has been working on this since last year,” says 2GB’s David Kidd. Foxtel has had crew on the ground in London for the past year and Fenton says he’s been working on the broadcast for four years. “It’s a bit like D-day,” he says of the countdown to the event. For many of the staff involved, like Fenton, this is not their first rodeo.

“I’ve been to every Olympics since 1992. It’s the hardest work I do,” says Hadley, who will start each day at 6am and work through to midnight, London time, every day of the event. His long-time producer, Chris Bowen, will work alongside him.

As one of the most experienced members of the team, Hadley is more than just the voice of the broadcast. “The station looks to me to make decisions on the run,” says Hadley, and this will include choosing which events to cover when there are scheduling conflicts, a problem Foxtel does not have to contend with. “There’s been a lot of talk that these will be the social media games,” says Graham Burrells, Foxtel’s creative director and executive in charge of production. “But I think it’s going to be the multichannel games.” While Burrells says coverage by the free-to-air networks for past Olympics has been excellent, it’s simply not possible to cover every event with just one or two channels as is the case with Channel Nine who will broadcast on their main channel as well as in HD on the GEM channel. Compare this to Foxtel’s eight channels: each will be dedicated to a specific selection of sports. For instance, channel LONDON 1 will air all of the pool sports including the swimming, diving and water polo while LONDON 2 covers the cycling events to be held at the velodrome. With the Olympic venues spread across the city, this channel allocation makes sense for technical and logistical reasons. “The security will be very intense getting in and out of venues,” says Foxtel’s Burrells, who sees transport as one of the greatest challenges.

From a technical perspective, Foxtel’s content is being compressed for broadcast in London and being directly delivered to Australian audiences without additional processing back home. “As far as we’re aware, that has never been done before,” says Peter Campbell, Foxtel’s director of sports and Olympic games.

The time difference between Britain and Australia’s eastern seaboard has 2GB salivating as the scheduling of events, including Australian favourite swimming, falls in the prime timeslot of breakfast. “People will be waking up with a real appetite for Olympic results,” says Mark Noakes, Macquarie Radio Network’s group sales and marketing director. “It’s perfect for breakfast radio.” Noakes predicts many commuters will be glued to their car radios which makes for an easy sell to advertisers. Big brands, he says, are keen to get involved with the broadcast and many advertising campaigns are being extended to include airtime prior to the games.

Noakes says: “It’s certainly a sell that gets advertisers’ attention.”

While Noakes is busy selling ads, 2GB’s on-air talent have some issues to contend with also. “The challenge is to make sure you preserve your voice,” Hadley says. “That’s something you’ve got to be conscious of.” There is also the danger of getting caught up in the excitement of the event. “It’s important you don’t go too early,” Hadley stresses.

But perhaps the most notable concern for presenters at the games is pronunciation. With more than 200 countries competing, there are bound to be some curly names on the call sheet. Hadley says the best approach is coordinating with other Australian broadcasters so they are on the same page. “You like to get it right,” he says and often compares notes with Nine’s Ray Warren over a cup of tea at the International Broadcast Centre.

While this all sounds terribly collegiate, with the sharing of resources, pronunciation tips and the broadcasters describing their offerings as “complimentary services”, there is still rivalry between them, which is to be expected for competing media outlets. Foxtel’s Campbell says: “Everyone’s got their competitive pride.”

  •  This piece first appeared in Encore magazine. Subscribe to the print edition here or download the iPad edition here

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