Top Olympic broadcasters reveal how COVID-19 has affected plans for Tokyo 2020 and beyond

Like much of the world, the Olympic broadcasters’ plans have been severely affected by COVID-19. But, as the USA’s NBC, Germany’s ZDF and ARD, and Canada’s CBC reveal here in a virtual round-table discussion, the pandemic has accelerated a host of exciting innovations and pushed sustainability to the top of the agenda.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your Tokyo 2020 production plans?

Gary Zenkel, President, NBC Olympics [NBC]: If you are viewer of NBC’s Olympic coverage here in the USA, your experience, if it had taken place in the summer of 2020 versus what you will have the opportunity to watch in the summer of 2021, other than environmentally, [is] not going to be different. Our planned programming and output across multiple linear channels, multiple digital channels and beyond has not in any way been reduced.

But if you look under the hood and how it’s all coming together, we are going to do more production from the States than we would have done in 2020.

François Messier, CBC Executive Director of Productions and Sport [CBC]: We made the decision in early September [2020] to bring our studios back to Canada, both to Toronto and Montreal [CBC produces coverage in both English and French].

So the 130 people who are over there will be mainly gathering content, either in mixed zones or doing some features or some reports, and calling key sports for us onsite. We will have a position in the Olympic Stadium for all the athletics [events] and the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. Also from the pool, where we [tend to] have good results for Canadian athletes. And the pool also includes diving, where we also have some good competitors. We will also be calling gymnastics and basketball. The rest will be called either from Toronto or Montreal.

Achim Hammer, ZDF Creative Director – public broadcasters ZDF and ARD are sharing the rights in Germany [ZDF]: For the first time, due to the overall situation around COVID-19, we are organising production mainly from Germany. For the last [Winter] Games, in 2018 in Korea, we already made use of some new technologies and had a split production, but this time the focus is on Germany. Only very few elements remain in Tokyo. Our aim is that the spectators receive the same service as they have been used to receiving from ARD and ZDF and do not notice the new production form.

“More with less” seems to be the catchphrase. What does this mean, in practical terms?

NBC: We’re probably moving home about 10 per cent of the workforce who would have been in Tokyo. And there is a corresponding increase back home.

But our venue presence, our commentator presence [and] our editorial crews hope and plan to circulate through the city and venues [and] access the athletes where it is permitted. All of that is still very much part of our plan.

CBC: We definitely started to use “more with less” way back in 2008 with the Beijing Games. 

But it really sped up in 2014 when we got back into the Olympics after a gap of two Games [CBC did not own the broadcast rights for Vancouver 2010 or London 2012]. We came back in Sochi, where we had around 285 employees onsite with a space in the IBC [International Broadcast Centre] of about 1,100m2, and we are looking now for Tokyo at a crew of about 130 onsite, and coming down close to 900m2 in the IBC.

It’s kind of an estimate, but we probably have 250 people back in both cities [Montreal and Toronto].

ZDF: Editing is done in Germany. We have ENG [electronic news-gathering] crews with reporters onsite, who provide footage, interviews, etc. but editorially the pieces, stories, etc. are done in Germany. Most of the commentary is off-tube [by watching televised pictures rather than live action] and comes from Germany. Only selected sports will have commentary positions onsite.

All the elements mentioned [above] were done onsite in London and Rio. The consequence is a significant reduction of the team [in Tokyo].

Is it fair to say the pandemic has made everyone far more comfortable with remote production?

NBC: We’ve been doing remote production for many years. The barrier to doing more was the separation of the production crew from the venue and having the time that allows for with the athletes and coaches, and being immersed with the fans. That was something you didn’t want to break because you felt like it was contributing to the presentation, but what I think we have discovered, because we were required to, is that the presentation remains very, very compelling.

We’ve overcome the fear. Then, there’s been some clear advancements in the process and the technology that’s been utilised to make this work.

CBC: I believe we were early adopters of remote production. It was probably new; even with OBS at the time, [it was referred to as] the “Canadian way”.

Are there any innovations that really excite you, particularly ones the viewers will notice?

NBC – Olympic Coordinating Director Michael Sheehan: One notable consumer-facing new technology application we will incorporate into our Tokyo coverage will assist NBC with creating unique moments of human connectivity between athletes and friends and family who may not be able to make the trip to Tokyo.

CBC: We put our toes into the water at the last Games with augmented reality… You are able to give the impression that an athlete is coming up out of the screen, and you feel like he/she is in 3D beside you.

A lot of the work in terms of the innovation we must thank OBS [for] because I think they are pushing the envelope on the broadcast side. Just the data on the screen they are putting, the super slo-mos they’ve been able to add to the coverage… They are all tools for a broadcaster that you need to make sure your storytelling is better for the viewer, to [give them] a better understanding.

ZDF: We are benefitting a lot from improved offers for social media, from Content+ and Content +Extra [OBS platforms], as we will have more possibilities to look behind the scenes, at warm-ups, etc. to be closer to the athletes and their preparation, performances and reaction. New technologies also allow us to combine different ways for interviews (Skype, smartphones, etc.), two-way talks and observations.

What do you think is next? Will the use of remote production increase?

NBC: I think it will [increase], but there is a line that won’t be crossed regardless of what technology can enable and that is the connection that we as presenters and storytellers need [vis-à-vis] the athlete, the field of play, the host city, the fan. There is still a level of production and connection that we will always maintain at the Olympic Games and no doubt at many other big events, because to tell the full story you must have that human interaction and experience. Our presenters have to feel it, they have to hear it.

ZDF: For the future, it would be essential to have access at home to special cameras for storytelling, as well as ISO feeds [footage shot independently through an isolated camera, separate from the main programme output]. This would reduce our own presence onsite. Prices have to be affordable. Also important for commentators at home is to have a better overview of the venue, as if he/she was sitting there.

Another option is to facilitate remote interviews, so our interviewers are able to ask the questions from home, so we do not lose the journalistic aspect, although we are not onsite.

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