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Olympic Broadcasting Services

Jim Mackney recently joined us to give a presentation to year 13 students about his work with the Olympic Broadcasting Services during the 2012 Olympic games. Students were given an insight into the organisation behind a large-scale live-broadcast event and many were inspired about their future working in the media.

Visit the OBS website to find out more about Olympic Broadcasting Services.


Written by Miss Hunter from the presentation

2012 Olympics Coverage: Jim Mackney

OBS: Olympics Broadcasting Service

IBC: International Broadcasting Centre in Stratford, on the Olympic site.

The OBS was responsible for unbiased and live coverage of all events in the temporary building. Each TV station then bought space in the IBC and paid for the live feeds. They would then add their own feeds, with their own presenters, and interviews with the athletes.

Along each sports track or venue, there were 15 positions which channels could book; this was called the Mixed Zone. This footage was then sent to the IBC; it was not exactly live, as there was a 0.04 second delay. The entire footage was provided both wireless and wired so as to ensure that coverage would never fail. Jim mentioned that there would have been miles of wires under London just for the live TV coverage of the Olympics. In Wembley, there were 34 commentary positions, which Jim and the team worked on.

The IBC was set up in a grid pattern, covering three floors. Each broadcaster then bought space; NBC bought the largest area – covering 65,000 square feet with 1500 staff of their own. CTV (Chinese TV) was also very large, whereas countries such as Slovenia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan would only have sent a few reporters, and just bought most of the footage of the Games.

In each area in the IBC, there would be an entire live TV studio. Pop-ups (temporary tent structures) were used in the stadiums by the individual companies for events they wanted to cover. The BBC would always over-book venues, and didn’t always use space they had booked.

NBC was the “king” at the Olympic Games, partly because of their numbers, and for the representation in the sports themselves. They were certainly dominant in the IBC. They chose to edit the live footage and show a 2 hour edited highlights programme in the evenings, when they could be sure of audience numbers, and so get the highest revenue from advertising. They faced a lot of criticism in social media for this decision.

Jim related the fact that NBC had tried to demand that they could broadcast live from the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, which would have meant lighting up much of London during the night, including Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey. This was absolutely rejected by the BBC and the Royal family.

The BBC, by contrast, were viewed as professionally, the elite. Their interactive provision was second to none. The digital content was provided separate to the live feed.

The OBS have a responsibility to archive all of the footage, which leads to an interesting debate about ownership of the clips. It would be worth finding out who owns the coverage of the OOC, and how much Danny Boyle receives for this – does he get royalties for each DVD sold? They are sold by the BBC, so are making profits for the BBC.

Jim talked about his experiences of working at the Olympics, and how this experience took over his life for three weeks. The group mentality, and the personalities he met there, obviously had an impact on him. The whole experience was somewhat transient, though. Jim was paid £100 per day, and that day started an hour before broadcast and ended an hour after; some days were very long indeed, up to 16 hours.

The employees not working on the OOC got to watch in a free bar, and this proved that Boyle’s planning and design were a success; there had been a feeling that it would not succeed, but it clearly did. The workers in the IBC were aware of the level of excitement the Games were having on the public, but in a removed way. They did not feel left out, and felt part of the excitement itself, as they were working on the Olympic Games, which were at the centre of the nation’s attention. They found the mix-up with the Korean football team to be amusing, and this fed the feeling of despondency during the first days when Team GB did not win any medals.

As far as the “army of volunteers” was concerned, the workers felt very sardonic about the contributions by these “glorified stewards”, who may have had lots of energy, but not a lot of sense or knowledge.

The Paralympic coverage by Channel 4 was expected to be stripped back, and C4 had a smaller budget. Certainly, the Paralympics were the largest live broadcast C4 have ever attempted. Channel 4 seems to be trying to find its voice again (rather than being just the channel of “gypsies and cooking”). It has begun to fall by the wayside, to Sky Atlantic (Mad Men, The Wire) and HBO (Girls, Boardwalk Empire) and is attempting to revitalise itself – with Utopia and Black Mirror. Has been setting itself up as the channel to break the final taboo – disability- with the Paralympics, The Last Leg and The Undateables.

As far as Sports broadcasting is concerned, Sky are the pinnacle, but the BBC made sure that the Olympics were available to all.

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Posted January 24, 2013