Published on in MediaInnovation

A Reuters news report two days into the London Olympics four years ago reads almost like a spoof. It begins: “Sports fans attending the London Olympics were told on Sunday to avoid nonurgent text messages and tweets during events because overloading of data networks was affecting television coverage.”

The warning came despite extensive contingency planning. This included the construction of 30 extra phone masts in the Olympic Park in Stratford to deal with an expected traffic peak of 1.7Gbps, the equivalent of “100 pictures a second from an iPhone 4s”, according to a BBC report.

Nothing quite dates like technology and that reference to an iPhone three generations removed places us firmly in 2012. And that’s one of the great attractions of using the Olympics to benchmark advances in media technology. The four-year time interval coupled with an unparalleled global audience allows us to chart the changes in medium, consumption and delivery.

For the record over 500 TV stations in 220 territories and nearly 200 websites ran footage during the 2012 Olympics. Some 3.6 billion TV viewers saw at least one minute of coverage – up 2.5% on Beijing 2008 – while 1.5 billion video streams were served online.

To provide a slightly longerterm context, broadcast hours for Beijing were 40% up on Athens 2004 and double those of 2000. Expect all records to be surpassed this summer in Rio.

It’s all a long way from Paris in 1924, the venue for the first live Olympic radio broadcast. A lack of an international broadcast standard meant its reach was limited. It was a remarkable technological advance, nonetheless. Much the same can be said for the first live televised Olympics twelve years later in Berlin. Two German firms, Telefunken and Fernesh, used a system that broadcast at 180 lines and 25 frames per second and was transmitted to 25 special viewing rooms in Berlin and Potsdam.

Similarly, the 1948 London Olympics were broadcast to sets within range of Wembley Stadium. It wasn’t until the 1960s that live coverage reached the
United States.

And the first internet Olympics? That honour goes to the 1996 Atlanta Games when the Olympics had a website for the very time. It featured, as Popular Mechanics reported excitedly at the time, “a treasure trove of news, photos and near-instantaneous results of sporting events”.

Moving images would have to wait. IP technology was used for backend services too – a touch screen commentator information system and Info ’96, a searchable directory of athletes and results coupled with an email facility.

It makes the forthcoming Rio Games the sixth where the internet will play a part but arguably the first where live internet viewing is a given – and certainly the first where mobile access to live video streams is an expectation. This in turn makes enormous demands on those broadcasters handling huge and complex traffic sources. Get it wrong and it might just take Usain Bolt’s 9.58 seconds to break the internet.

Broadcasters, on the journey from analogue to SDI to IP, have much to consider as consumption habits and delivery methods change. An IP infrastructure is now the basis for producing, transmitting and storing content. It is the network, the data hub and security solution rolled into

Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) will be the broadcaster’s friend as they look to avoid internet meltdown.

After Rio comes Tokyo, 56 years on from the last time Japan’s capital hosted the event. In 1964 a televised games was a novelty. In 2016 expect a spike in sales of televisions boasting 8K screens – that’s an image created with nearly 8,000 more horizontal lines than those used in Berlin back
in 1936. Moreover, technology analysts believe the “entry size” for 4K televisions will be 65 inches.

For certain, consumers will use Rio 2016 to make new demands on broadcasters and tech. The mass focus of the Olympics has become a twice a decade opportunity for consumers to test their favourite tech toys and ask for new broadcast capabilities. Past experience suggests that with a
little help from the technologists, broadcasters will be ready for Rio – even if they have to ask us to go easy on the tweets!

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