AS THE NATIONAL BROADCASTER for the host country at the London 2012 Olympic Games, the BBC set the bar high.
In many respects the coverage was a transformational experience for British sports fans, who were able to dip in and out of live coverage across TV, radio and online, as well as accessing hours of recorded clips, interviews and data through digital channels.
The size of the audience was, of course, driven up by the outpouring of national interest in a ‘home’ Games and the remarkable performance of GB competitors, whose medal haul made it the nation’s best-ever Olympics.
“There are certain things that we take away from London 2012 which will inform the way we cover Rio,” says Barbara Slater, the former Olympic gymnast who is head of BBC Sport.
“On the one hand, it is about those memorable moments where everybody gets together to watch. The opening ceremony for 2012, for example, was the most-watched event in British broadcasting history. Then of course we pay particular attention to must-see events, such as the men’s 100 metres.”
Set-piece ceremonies aside, televised sports gold is more often created by the coincidence of the event schedulers and athletes peaking at exactly the right time. Day eight of London 2012 produced just that perfect storm, with victories for rowers and cyclists preceding a breathtaking night of athletics in the Olympic Stadium, where national treasure Jessica Ennis-Hill won gold in the heptathlon, Greg Rutherford in the long jump and Mo Farah in the men’s 10,000 metres.
“It is moments like those when our coverage brings the nation together,” Slater says.
But Olympic broadcasting today is about more than capturing the big glory moments.
“It is also about choice,” Slater adds. “We need to ensure that we both cater to individual interests and to enable people to see things which they have never seen before, and to try new things.”
Rio 2016 promises more of the same. It will, says Slater, be a 24-hour Games with some key live moments slipping out of prime time into late night or early hours because of the four-hour time difference.
“In effect, it means that different sports, including cycling and gymnastics, will be held during UK prime time. That means that we will play the action the following day for those who are not able to watch it live and our breakfast show will be coming from the sports department because of the huge appetite there will be to understand what happened overnight,” she explains.
Overall, the BBC will offer 550 hours of coverage across its network TV channels. Simple maths shows that’s over 22 days of coverage, significantly longer than the Games themselves will run. That means utilising existing channels BBC1 and BB4 together with eight red button options – more than at London – and 24 digital streams which will, across the Games period, deliver 2,500 hours of coverage.
It’s a smorgasbord of sports with an invitation to enjoy all you can eat, says Slater. Delivery will be faster because the digital infrastructure is more robust than four years ago – a legacy of development work by BBC Design and Engineering.
“People will be able to get streamed coverage and more through a BBC Live app, and we will see far more user personalisation and customisation. That delivers a highly personal service but with BBC curation and story-telling,” says Slater, who points to the 11 million visitors to the BBC website during the Wales v England Euro 2016 clash – held during working hours – as an example of the importance of digital services to complement the ‘big TV moments’.
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“Social media will also be important and gives us a chance to tap into what athletes are saying, gain some insight from what they are saying and pick up trends,” she says. “For us, it is about taking the audience behind the scenes and, of course, we are constantly reaching out and bringing in new audiences.”
According to Slater, planning for Rio 2016 started more or less as soon as the London flame had been extinguished. She says that what is clearly a massive planning and logistical exercise is simplified by the significant Olympic experience of key staff within the BBC itself and among the freelance cadre who will work on the project. The scale of the operation is highlighted by an army of over 400 BBC personnel who will be in Rio to deliver the Games.
It’s a major exercise and a significant line on the BBC budget, so will audiences meet with expectation even if GB competitors don’t match the standards of success they set in London?
“Of course performance has a bearing on interest. When you have a great story to tell, it can make a difference to the audience at home,” Slater said.
“But the UK is a nation of sports-lovers which means that they love all sports delivered at the highest level, and that is what the Olympics is all about – world-class sport delivered by world-class athletes.”
Other than issues around staging and management, the biggest shadows hanging over the Rio Games are doping and the exclusion (at the time of writing) of the Russian track and field team.
While not overly concerned that the high profile taken by doping in recent years has made the public so cynical that they switch off the Olympics, Slater is adamant that: “The audience at home must believe in the performances.”
She adds: “Everybody wants sport to be clear of drugs and we have to be supportive of what is being done to combat [the problem].”
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