Olympic games broadcasting via the cloud: technology at the service of storytelling

In simple terms, the broadcast footprint at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 will be 30 per cent smaller than it was at Rio 2016, while content production will be up by about 30 per cent. Add the fact that technology is enabling a host of new ways to tell the stories of the Games and you can see that OBS boss Yiannis Exarchos is excited about uncovering new opportunities.

The challenge of producing more than 9,000 hours of sports content over 17 days in the current climate is clearly very real. But for Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) Chief Executive Yiannis Exarchos, it is all about approaching it from a different angle.

“You should never let the opportunity of a major crisis go unused and unexploited,” Exarchos said. “Look at the learnings and uncover every opportunity so that we do what we do in a way that is far less impactful for the environment and the host cities, but at the same time is exciting.”

“For me, it’s not just about the defensive approach, it’s about the very aggressive approach. We want to do more with less. We want to do more exciting content, we want to redirect resources where it makes sense in innovation, in new ways the Games and sports can be experienced rather than spending on and investing in traditional broadcast workflow. So any solution that helps that really gets me excited. But at the end of the day, as a broadcaster and producer what really gets me excited is when you see technology being at the service of storytelling. I love technology but I love storytelling more.”

It is an engaging manifesto, particularly when it is translated into action.

“Technology provides this through the world of data, through the world of augmented reality, through the world potentially of virtual reality – all things we will try and start introducing in Tokyo and in the next Games,” Exarchos explained.

In content terms this means more coverage in different formats, with the needs of social media and digital outlets high on the agenda. For instance, Content+, a web-based platform primarily dedicated to short-form and digital content, will be far more prominent in Tokyo than ever before. “Broadcasters can use this content, repurpose it; they can practically do it from their mobile phones in the back of a car,” Exarchos said, smiling.

This focus will mean there will be far more behind-the-scenes coverage than ever before, with consumers getting a real insight into what it means to be an Olympic athlete. Not that innovations are limited to off-field action – Tokyo 2020 will also be the first Games coverage to be natively produced in 4K HDR, something Exarchos was “not sure could actually be done” just a matter of months ago. 

“It’s not about consumption of technology,” the OBS boss explained. “It’s about experiencing a better way of telling the stories of the greatest athletes of the world.”


Crucially, technology is making a big difference behind the scenes too. Pop the bonnet of production at Tokyo 2020 and you will see major changes to how the world’s biggest broadcasters are planning to cover the world’s biggest sporting event. And it is all to marry the desire for more content and different types of content with the need to drastically reduce the footprint and complexity of the broadcast operation, while respecting the demands of working during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It has been possible through massive adoption on the side of OBS of IP technologies, and I would say especially by the massive adoption of cloud services,” Exarchos said.

“We were lucky in the sense that we have the TOP partnership with Alibaba. Alibaba is one of the key players in the world in cloud technology, and together with them we developed what we call the OBS Cloud, which is a platform which allows broadcasters to receive content remotely on the cloud and even to work on this content remotely on a cloud basis.”

Alongside other innovations this, in essence, means that broadcasters can do a significant proportion of their jobs – from post-production to commentary – from their own countries. A win in every sense.

“The major thinking, and what we want them to do and help them to do, is reduce the presence [of broadcast staff performing work] that can happen anywhere in the world,” Exarchos stressed. “To be shipping servers and setting up equipment in a city for things that can happen on the cloud is one of the things we want to avoid.”

And they have been successful in doing so. The International Broadcast Centre (IBC) in Tokyo is going to be 25 per cent smaller than the Rio IBC, with 27 per cent fewer broadcasters present. This trend is going only one way. The IBC for the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 is already small enough for the Organising Committee to have combined it with the Main Press Centre.

All of this, in conjunction with further measures such as the centralisation of technical equipment in the IBC away from each venue, means less power, less transport, less accommodation and ultimately lower CO2 emissions.

“If you have a journalist in the mixed zone you can receive everything [else] back in your home country,” Exarchos confirmed.

This is the key. The OBS man knows there is a limit – human connection between the sport and the athletes will always remain paramount – but it is the paraphernalia that can be tinkered with.

There is no doubt the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the widespread adoption of remote production, with broadcasters being forced to innovate on a daily basis back home. The potential need for social distancing on site in Tokyo has also meant that venues contain 30 per cent less space for broadcasters than originally planned – again, something most are used to. Having the Japanese as hosts for the next Games and the Chinese for the one after has, in Exarchos’ words, “helped a lot”, with both “extremely keen on adopting new technology”. With NHK, Japan’s host broadcaster, producing a comprehensive broadcast package in 8K – a format that “reaches the limit of the human eye” – and 5G looming ever larger for Beijing 2022 and beyond, the Games should look better than ever.