BBC plans Olympian digital stream

Pubcaster to offer 2,500 hours of Games programming online

LONDON — Digital streaming may finally come of age for the BBC during the London Summer Olympics.

While the Opening Ceremony on July 27 is expected to be watched by more than 1 billion TV viewers around the world, millions will be watching the Games on their smart phones, tablets and laptops.

“At the (2004) Athens Olympics, people had to be near their TV sets to watch the action. In 2012, that no longer applies,” says Roger Mosey, the BBC’s director of London 2012. “Online demand will be huge, because people expect to have the Games wherever and whenever they want them.” In the U.K., the Olympics will be available on 24 BBC on-demand HD digital channels in addition to blanket coverage on BBC1 and BBC3 — squeezing the most value out of the £60 million ($93.7 million) the pubcaster paid for the Games.

Overall, the BBC is promising 2,500 hours of live online sports programming out of an estimated 3,000 hours of competition. This is more than double the 1,200 hours provided from the Beijing Olympics four years ago. At Athens in 2004, the BBC served up online sports at an Olympics for the first time, amounting to 1,000 hours of live coverage.

The boom in tablets and 4G networks means more sophisticated mobile-streaming devices are available. “That wasn’t the case four years ago,” says Mosey, who predicts that London 2012 will do for BBC’s digital operations what the 1936 abdication of Edward VIII did for its radio service and the 1953 coronation of Elizabeth II did for its TV ops.

Adds Stuart Knapman, senior director of Essential Research: “The tablet makes watching sports on the go a realistic option rather than an inconvenient novelty.”

On both sides of the Atlantic, broadband speeds are not only faster than in 2008, but penetration levels have improved: In the U.S., levels have risen from 60% in 2008, to an estimated 70.3% by the end of 2012, according to IHS Screen Digest; in the U.K., the figure was 60% in 2008, and that’s likely to grow to 73% by the end of 2012.

Taking advantage of the tech boom, NBCU, which holds U.S. rights to the Games, for the first time will stream coverage from every event — and offer some 3,500 hours in total, including awards ceremonies, multiple streams and highlights coverage.

The Intl. Olympic Committee will alsostream live coverage in HD over its own YouTube channel to 64 countries, an upgrade over 2008, when it provided clips only. The IOC’s YouTube channel will offer more than 2,200 hours of event coverage from London, including all the medals finals.

Other broadcasters around the world also will provide streaming coverage of the Games.

In the U.K., Tim Westcott, senior TV analyst at IHS Screen Digest, expects a lot of viewing on tablets and cell phones in the workplace. “People like watching sports live,” Westcott says.

The BBC is also providing a free, dedicated mobile app offering video and live results. (Another free ap, from the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, will help visitors to the U.K. capital organize their visit.)

None of this is to suggest TV viewing will be marginalized for the 17 days of the Games, particularly with BBC1 and BBC3 devoting their entire skeds to the Games. Still, the 500 or so hours of live sports the pubcaster is gearing up for on TV is dwarfed by the amount of online coverage. “Online gives us so much more capacity,” says a BBC spokesman.

Overall, some 21,000 accredited broadcasters and journalists, the vast majority from outside the U.K., have begun to arrive in the British capital to prepare for what is certain to be the most digitally active Games ever.

NBCU’s contingent totals 2,700, according to John Fritsche, NBCU senior veep for Olympics operations.

At the Opening Ceremony, the BBC, NBCU and Japanese pubcaster NHK will have their own cameras, as well as pool cameras, and for the first time at an Olympics, there will be a live 3D feed.

Danny Boyle, who is masterminding the opening extravaganza, will direct the Olympic Broadcasting Services’ cameras. The OBS will film the show and provide a live feed augmented by pictures tailored for the U.K., the U.S. and Japan.

“Logistically the Opening Ceremony is quite challenging,” Mosey says.

The BBC is making 24 live on-demand HD feeds to paybox rivals BSkyB and Virgin, as well as to the free-to-air Freeview and Freesat platforms.

This is apparently in part to convince the IOC, with which it has yet to secure rights to the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, that it is determined to make the Games available to as wide an audience as possible in the U.K.

Viewers in the U.K. looking to find alternative programming to the Games will have to go to BBC2 and BBC4, with even flagship soap “EastEnders” shunted to BBC2 for the duration of the Olympics.

Westcott rejects the idea that the Beeb could be guilty of Olympics overkill.

“The BBC wants to pull out all the stops. After all,” he says, noting the Games’ last visit to the city in 1948, “a London Olympics is an event that only comes along every 60 or 70 years.”