Road To The Olympic Games


Olympic broadcasters have to roll with the changes

With no shortage of spine-tingling moments, the Olympics continue to draw large numbers of people to their screens. But the ways in which those moments are presented and consumed have evolved considerably.

New technology, changing viewing habits make for interesting times

More and more viewers are watching Olympic programming on their phones and other handheld devices, but it's still television that draws the most eyeballs — and puts the most cash in the IOC's wallet. (Al Bello/Getty Images)

When it comes to Olympic memories, Don Peppin has more to choose from than most. The upcoming Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea will be the 13th the veteran broadcast executive has covered for CBC Sports, and he has witnessed enough athletic triumph and failure to fill multiple scrapbooks.

But one moment still sticks out. Nobody expected Canadian downhill skier Kerrin Lee-Gartner to do much at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. She was a consistent performer on the World Cup circuit but had never won a race.

A year before the Games, Gartner told Peppin during an interview about a recent dream she had.

"Kerrin said, 'It's the weirdest thing. I don't even speak French, but in a dream I heard some announcer say 'la medaille d'or, du Canada, Kerrin Lee-Gartner!''" Peppin recalls.

Fast forward to the Olympics and Gartner's dream came true when she won gold in the women's downhill.

"You realize that, four or five hours later, there was going to be an announcer who said 'la medaille d'or, du Canada, Kerrin Lee-Gartner!'" Peppin says.

He still smiles when he recalls his role in creating a memorable Canadian Olympic TV moment.

The 1992 Olympic downhill champion envisioned her unlikely victory 1:57

As CBC Sports' Executive Producer for Olympic Operations, Peppin is still looking for moments like that. But the way in which they're presented and consumed by Canadians has evolved considerably in the last 25 years.

In 1992, the CBC paid about $5 million for the rights to beam about 200 hours of Winter Olympic coverage into Canadian homes. The Olympics were available on one English channel only and audiences had little say in what they saw.

"I was entirely responsible for everything that went on the air," Peppin says. "If you didn't see what was coming out of my control room, you had to wait and read the newspaper the next day."

Today, thanks to massive advances in technology, viewers can watch the Games on whatever device they want. More importantly, they can watch whatever they want.

"We've gotten to the point where every minute of every event is available," says Andrew Billings, the director of the University of Alabama's Sports Communications program. "We've moved from can I watch it to what do I want to watch."

Hours and hours

For the 2018 Winter Olympics, the CBC and its partners are slated to air 871 hours of programming. And that's just on conventional television. An additional 2,500 hours of coverage will be streamed to devices like computers, iPads and phones, meaning virtually every moment of the Games will be available to watch. It's the culmination of a decade-long trend that has seen more and more Olympic content appear on places other than traditional TV.

Kerrin Lee-Gartner stunned the world, and created an indelible TV moment, with her Olympic downhill win in 1992. (Bob Thomas/Getty Images)
"It's hugely liberating for the audience. You can be your own programmer," says Peppin. "When I first began, I was the programmer. Now the audience chooses. If they're really interested in snowboard slopestyle, they can watch that event."

Billings says the range of choices goes even further.

"Some people want it entirely commentary-free. They just want the video, nobody shaping their experience. Some people want more medal ceremonies, some people just the athletic performance, some people like the profiles where they get to know the athletes."

Peppin points out that the emergence of new platforms also provides broadcasters with more options when it comes to telling athletes' stories.

"We look at the whole range of stories for that athlete and decide how to tell each one. We might do 10 different storytelling methods."

Fight for your rights

While broadcasters and audiences continue to experiment with different ways to showcase and consume the Games, conventional television still drives the Olympics.

The International Olympic Committee parcels out TV and digital rights to networks on a country-by-county basis, and they account for nearly half of its overall revenue. For example, in 2014, NBC paid $7.65 billion US for the rights to show the Games on television and online in the United States through 2032. In Canada, the CBC has secured Olympic rights through 2024. The public broadcaster hasn't disclosed how much it paid.

"The Olympics are that property that, even if the ratings are flat, in comparison to all other forms of television they will still be a very valuable product," Billings says. "So I think [rights fees] could even go higher in the future."

If the IOC wants to continue to grow and rely on media-rights revenues, Billings says it needs to quantify the value and impact of the content being provided beyond conventional television.

Billings has been given a research grant by the IOC to see whether watching content on phones or computers drives people to watch on traditional television. During the 2018 Winter Games, Billings will be tracking habits in six countries, including Canada.

"When people go to Facebook or other non-television venues for Olympic coverage, does that make them more likely to watch more Olympics or does it mean they don't feel the need to consume that larger television product?" Billings says. "The IOC is very interested in this because a bulk of their revenue comes from television contracts. And if those start to erode, they have to find a new financial model in order to exist."

Peppin thinks Olympic broadcasts, driven by the technology of the day, will continue to evolve but will remain a lucrative property because they deliver the kind of compelling stories and moments that only big-time events can.

"When those athletes march through that gate and that Canadian flag is there, that's a high point," Peppin says. "For many people, that's the tingle-up-your-spine moment."

About the Author

Jamie Strashin is a native Torontonian whose latest stop is the CBC Sports department. Before, he spent 15 years covering everything from city hall to courts and breaking news as a reporter for CBC News. He has also worked in Brandon, Man., and Calgary. Follow him on Twitter @StrashinCBC

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