Being at the cutting edge of innovation in sports coverage, delivering thousands of hours of content, expanding work in the cloud and planning years in advance is all part of the routine for the Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS).
In this episode, Trevor Piling from OBS discusses the work of Olympic Channel News, the mammoth task of setting up for each games, and producing engaging stories for audiences not normally regarded as sports fans.
Listen to Hear:
- The years of planning required to produce cutting edge sports content
- The drive to deliver new ways of covering events
- The increasing importance of digital
Our Guests This Episode
Trevor Piling is a seasoned sports broadcasting executive based in Madrid, Spain, working as host broadcast producer for Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS).
Trevor joined OBS in 2019 after a successful career in Canada where he was involved in the production of some of the biggest and most watched sporting events of the past twenty years, mostly working with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).
Trevor has worked at twelve Olympic Games and with OBS was the director of Olympic Channel News for the past three years, leading coverage at the Tokyo and Beijing Olympic and Paralympic Games and the Youth Olympic Games in Lausanne, Switzerland.
The Olympic audience is different than your typical sports broadcast audience. We want them to feel something from watching the content. – Trevor Piling, OBS
Mentioned in This Episode
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Craig Wilson: Hi, and welcome to the Making the Media podcast and to the latest episode in season two.
This time we are focusing on sport and where better to discuss that than at the very pinnacle—the Olympic Games.
Trevor Piling was the director of the Olympic Channel News for OBS—the Olympic Broadcasting Services—for the games in Tokyo last year and Beijing in 2022, heading up a team which delivered a 24-hour news channel and providing thousands of hours of highlights coverage for rights holders during the games.
He is now one of their five host broadcast producers, who are responsible for all the live sport event coverage of the Olympic Games.
With a long background in sports programming in his native Canada, where he worked his way up to becoming executive producer of the Hockey Night in Canada program, he has been involved in twelve Olympic Games, dating back to 1998 and joined OBS, who are based in Madrid in Spain in 2019.
But what does OBS do? How do they organize the coverage of such a massive event, distributing thousands of hours of live coverage and highlights packages to rights holders across the world? And what does the future hold in terms of innovation in sports coverage, utilizing the cloud and remote working?
Let’s find out from Trevor, first of all outlining who OBS are.
Trevor Piling: So OBS are the storytellers of the games. We are the host broadcaster of the games and essentially it's our responsibility to provide both live and some non-live coverage to the rights holders.
So rights holders are television companies, broadcasters from around the world who have secured rights for their territory from the IOC and OBS is a subsidiary of the IOC, and so we produce the games on the behalf of the IOC and then provide feeds to all of the rights holders from around the world. And there are many rights holders and they come in different shapes and sizes. Some are obviously the most advanced broadcasters in the world who are monetizing their investment in Olympic content. And there are others that range right down to very small nations who don't have a great deal of infrastructure to put into their Olympic broadcasting. But it's still important for their nation to share, you know, this global event. And so we provide, you know, services for the whole range of rights holders for them to tell Olympic stories in the way that they really want to. So, it's our pictures and it's our sound created by the host broadcaster that are then distributed by all of the rights holders in their territories.
CW: I guess that's one of the key things about an event such as the Olympics, where you may have people who are perhaps not interested in sport, but they are interested in the Olympics when it comes along.
So I'm interested in how you help the rights holders tell those stories because I guess it's not just about necessarily the event itself, it is about the personalities and the people that are involved.
TP: Yes, definitely. So, you know, we assist the rights holders in many ways. First of all, you know, during the games itself, there is a daily briefing conducted each day by our CEO who then is interacting with those rights holders, those important broadcasting stakeholders of ours, every day, so that we know how they feel about the products that they're receiving and that we could make real time adjustments, you know, should we feel that that would be necessary in order to provide the rights holders with something better.
That said, it's a continuous dialogue that we would have with the rights holders both during the games as well as outside of games time. And, as you mentioned, the Olympic audience is different than your typical sports broadcast audience, in that oftentimes, we kind of come at it from thinking that approximately 80% of our viewers are not diehard sports fans. And therefore we need to adjust our storytelling to help those fans who are not normally consumers of sport.
So what that means is that we ensure that we tell stories that utilize graphics, so that graphics help explain you know the stage or the phase of the competition. We use standardized shots so that we're always making sure that we're being true to the sport and telling the sport stories in the way that viewers have come to understand and be able to comprehend and learn the sports.
Some of the sports are fairly complex in terms of their sport format, and so we take the time to try and ensure that the way we tell the story is consumable for audiences, regardless of what territory they're in the world, and regardless of what their background may be.
CW: One thing about the Olympics clearly is from a logistical perspective, it is an enormous operation and I know that OBS is obviously based in Madrid and have a relatively small permanent staff. So I wonder if you could explain a little bit about the logistics of how you scale up for the games, how you then get people to go, and things like that as well, because it is a massive, massive operation.
TP: Yeah, you're exactly right, Craig. The staff of OBS is approximately 160 permanent staff and for summer games, we would staff up above 7000 come games time. And so there are a number of departments within OBS—obviously there's production, they’re responsible for the content. There’re also areas such as engineering, game services, etc., that all need specialized people for a set period of time.
And so we developed relationships with freelancers from around the globe, who we over time get to know and trust, who will come in and provide the expertise to execute these key positions at games time. And so in order to get those freelancers, the thousands of freelancers who are part of the program on board or onboarded, each department or area is responsible for creating a training program that will help onboard their staff.
So I'll give you an example. For the past couple of games where I was the director of news and highlights for OBS, we created a product referred to as Olympic Channel News, which is a 24/7 channel of Olympic sport highlights, and we will staff up approximately to about 200 people come this summer games. And so, as you can appreciate, bringing in that number of people very, very close towards the games from people all over the world who also have different television languages, it's important for us to have created a language that's easy to understand and that we're able to then impart upon those freelancers when they arrive so that they have a clear sense of what we're expecting from them operationally, as well as editorially.
So how you onboard is one of the key parts of the process, the key parts of the planning, to be able to execute on such a large project when you're really handing it over to this large group of talented freelancers, right at the last minute.
So really, OBS is a planning organization and it's a very detailed obviously in its planning and working very, very closely with Olympic committees. Working very very closely with international sports federations to ensure that all key areas are aligned come that critical moment at games time.
CW: Yeah, because I guess this is one of the things, isn't it? You only have one opportunity to get it right? It's not like, you know, this event where we can stop and do it again. You know you have that that two-and-a-half week period where the games are actually on.
So, I wonder if you could describe, Trevor, what your role is in the build-up to the games. Obviously, we recently had the games in Beijing and prior to that, the games and games in Tokyo. So how far in advance are you going across and then how do you ramp up, and what's it like during games time itself?
TP: Well, what I would say is that games time is the payoff. That's the fun where all of the planning and preparation and hard work that you've done in advance of the games is then paid off. But essentially we get into a cycle where we are looking at both a summer and winter games simultaneously, and as one games finish, as Beijing finishes as it has recently, we then immediately pick up on Milano Cortina. So there already have been certainly people from OBS who are working with Milano Cortina, you know, five and six years out from their games and so we would provide advice on the sports schedule, on where the IBC goes, on potentially providing opinions or providing input into venues and how venues are being used, etc.
So it is a very long planning cycle for those of us who are, you know, hands-on production, we are really, as I say, focused on two games at a time, so we have, you know, currently sent our producers to Paris now twice to have viewed the venues and begin the planning for the live events right down to the millimeter or the, you know, the exact positioning of cameras, of microphones, of lighting, of mixed zones, of all of the rights holders’ infrastructure that would be at a venue where they can book services.
So it is a long term endeavor, and it requires that much time really because you're walking into venues that don't normally house these particular sports, so they're one-off set up, because they're all very unique, and they require, you know, individual attention, each and every games.
CW: One of the other things that I know about OBS is that they're also very innovative in the way that they cover the sport, and I guess that's one of the key challenges when you're looking ahead that two and four years of planning and trying to figure out how can we do these things differently? How can we innovate? How can we perhaps bring in new ways of looking at the sport? Whether that's from how it's filmed or even how the audio is done. So again, it's a constant process I guess of looking at how to innovate and change.
TP: It is, and we like to believe one of the hallmarks of OBS's approach to games is to be innovative, is to bring new technologies to sport coverage that help enhance the storytelling. You know, there are technologies in broadcasting that often end up just being somewhat gimmicky. They may look cool or fascinating, but after a number of uses it may not have the same impact. Whereas we're looking for innovative technology that really does enhance storytelling and adds to what it is that we're, you know, we're trying to communicate. And under the leadership of my boss, Mark Wallace, who's the chief content officer for OBS, we are encouraged, we are mandated to be looking for new technologies to have our eye on what's happening now and also an eye to what's happening a couple of years from now, so that ideally, we launch some of these new technologies at games time and, you know, it's certainly one of the exciting things about being able to work for OBS is this desire to continue to enhance the quality and bring more each time to the rights holders.
CW: So obviously there’s this desire to continue to enhance the quality and to bring more each time to the rights holders. But I guess it's also about, you know, covering new sports because each games, you know, tend to have new sports that come in, and part of that, I also guess, is about trying to appeal to perhaps a different audience—maybe a younger audience. Perhaps an audience that hasn’t even watched the Olympic Games before, as well?
TP: Absolutely, and I think that the IOC's done a great job of bring in some very interesting and dynamic sports that are appealing definitely to the youth demographic, but that I think resonate across all age groups, really, in most cases.
So I do think that as we're heading more digital with everyone's consumption, you know, having those types of sports available is important. The way we provide it is, I think, important, and the way we cover it is obviously also important. So, you know, as surfing was new in Tokyo, we, you know, for the first time we're deploying producers to cover surfing, our coordinating producer who oversaw the coverage, you know, would have done an immense amount of research work very closely with the international federations, probably even, you know, discussed the coverage with athletes to make sure that we hear from all the stakeholders, here where there have been excellent coverages in the past, but also where there is room for coverages to grow and expand and really try and take a holistic look at our coverage of new sport when we come to it. Because it's an opportunity. But there's also obviously an obligation for us to present those sports in the best light possible.
CW: You mentioned before about your role in charge of the Olympic Channel News and you spoke about the 24-hour channel that happens in the course of the games. But I'm also aware that you also have a platform called Content +, which is a digital platform. I wonder if you talk a little bit about what that is.
TP: Yeah, well we have a digital platform as you just mentioned referred to as Content + and whereas in the past we may have had a linear channel serve as a delivery mechanism to rights holders, and they would have the opportunity then to edit content out of that linear channel. But as technology has moved us forward and really starting in 2018 Pyongchang, we launched Content + where all of the content now that OBS creates is able to be retrieved through a desktop through a laptop anywhere in the world to suck in content for that broadcaster it's pulling content anything that OBS has created for their own use.
And so it's become a very important tool for rights holders to be able to access content more quickly, more cleanly, at multiple different bit rates, so that it can be suited to their own personal use as some of the content may go directly to digital platform, others may be brought into a television or broadcast environment, and so because we're offering it in different flavors, that makes it easier for the broadcaster to use that content.
It's also sortable and filterable when you go to search for that content so that it's easy to find and not only do we provide every live feed, OBS also creates a number of high quality features and behind the scenes pieces that are also then available to rights holders through Content +, and so it's become, you know, a repository of first class content in an easily managed platform by the rights holders.
In fact, now, I believe there's even an edit tool that that may be offered within content plus for rights holders to be able to, you know, not have to move huge amounts of media, but edit in a cloud, bring that content in just the pieces that they require.
CW: You mentioned cloud there, Trevor, and that was something I was going to ask about is about when you're looking towards the future. Is it things like cloud distribution, cloud technologies, that are part of that conversation? And then perhaps another element to that is people potentially working remotely accessing kind of content as well? So I'm interested in what you see as cloud and remote working, how that perhaps fits into the future?
TP: It's been a large initiative of our company, of our CEO's to help rights holders to minimize their footprint in the host country. I have quite a bit of experience of that coming from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Canada, where, as the rights holder, we were producing from Canada, in a control room, bringing in feeds from that Olympic host country. And so we, from an engineering perspective, worked very closely with all the rights holders to provide them with the type of transmission that they're looking for, be it fiber, be it through the cloud, I think everyone has now moved away from satellite transmission pretty much. But how we deliver the signals is an important aspect of how we distribute.
And, you know, because it's over probably five to 10,000 pieces of content per Olympic Games that there's obviously a lot to choose from and in providing that amount, rights holders just can use it in the way they want.
Again, a rights holder could work with us to create an API that flows the content right onto their website. For example, highlight packages is one of the types of things that we would work with the rights holder to do so, you know, there's many customizable services as the rights holder that you can work with OBS to create.
CW: And I guess that provides them with, as we spoke about earlier, that flexibility to take that raw content and to turn it into something that's very specific to what they want to do, whether that's a package for broadcast, or it's for a variety of pieces that that go online.
TP: Yes, and it's very important for us to provide all of those different options, particularly for you know, rights holders in large countries who are monetizing content and providing it in many, many different forms.
So, they may, for example, of course they would have a digital presence of streaming clipped material. They may have content that would then flow onto their news division or their entertainment division, or even their kids division. So now, the way the rights holders are monetizing or using their content is not only in the traditional kind of linear sports broadcast single channel with so much content being available and different ways of distribution depending on what works for that broadcaster in their own territory means that we need to be flexible in how we provide it to them.
And so again, all these different flavors allow them to use it, distribute it, insert their own content within it, insert their own broadcasters within it so that it's branded very, you know, well branded for them to create an association between the games and the rights holder. So how we provide it to them is a very important part of this and it's continued to evolve where over the last couple games, our partnership with Alibaba as one of our top partners, who is a cloud based company, we do a lot of work with Alibaba, for example, so it continues to evolve.
CW: It is an incredible set of events. There's no doubt about it, Trevor. But I also want to ask, during the games time itself, is it not quite stressful?
TP: For those of us who have had the good fortune to do a number of these things, I think that that's the the fun of it. And the thing that you thrive on is the responsibility to tell great stories and to be interested in those stories and to put yourself in the shoes of the consumer who's at home and trying to shape that for them so that they feel the emotion of these games. Like, the Olympics are serious, but they're also a lot of fun, and try and get that emotion conveyed through whatever technology will take us to a consumer, you know, we want them to feel something from watching the content.
CW: So I know you've moved on to a new position, Trevor, within OBS compared to what you were doing previously, but I wonder if you could sum up how you reflect on your time as the director of the Olympic Channel News through those games in Pyeongchang and Beijing.
TP: Well, to be honest with you, I'm very proud of what myself and the team were able to accomplish. You know, we took a product that had provided a very specific service for a number of games and then as we had discussed earlier about Content +, Content + became more of a service that rights holders would take. That meant that we could change the content of the channel somewhat to be less of a delivery platform and more of a true entertainment platform or a stream that feels like a channel.
And so we brought new elements to the programming. For example, a headlines package that allows us to get results out more quickly. We've changed the writing style to be a little bit more dramatic, not to give results away before we see them play out on the screen. The way we program features to run in relation to their live sporting events so that you see a profile on an athlete that leads directly into then seeing that athlete compete on the field of play.
And so there's been a number of tweaks that have been done to the Olympic Channel News and one of the greatest things has been really the people who are involved in this. Some who were new to the project, some who had been with it for a long time, really feel very passionately about what it is that they do. And that includes some of the vendors that we work with. You know, the people from your team, Craig, are very much a part of the OCN team, and you know, we go back a long way with yourself and others and so it's that coming together of people that makes the work and the stressful work fun and enjoyable, especially when you allow people to do what it is that they're great at. Try and put them in a position to thrive, and then also create a you know, an atmosphere of team where it's selfless. You're not going to be judged on being the person who has the very best idea. You judge more so on how you help your teammates. And it's that type of work, I think, that allows people then to just be relaxed and enjoy the process of the hard work to you know, spend time on the technology to be able to move the content around that you and your colleagues help us to do so well that, you know, it's not work, really, it's a privilege and it's just a lot of fun.
CW: We've talked a lot about the Olympics, but I also wanted to raise a couple of other things and I think a lot of people would know that the Olympics is the biggest multi-sport event. But I don't think too many people would necessarily know that the Paralympics is the second biggest multi-sport event. And then of course in addition to the Paralympics, the Olympic organization also produces the Youth Olympics, as well.
So, I wonder how do you deal with coverage of those kind of events as well? Because I know from some of your coverage you've done from the youth Olympics before you have the rising stars who then go on to find success at the main games itself. So how important are the Paralympics and the Youth Olympic Games to what you do OBS as well?
TP: It's a very important part of what we do, Craig. Thank you for pointing that out, because you know, the Olympic Games is the diamond and has been around for a very long time, and it's important for us to continue to shine light on other athletes’ successes and their stories, and so the Paralympic Games, the coverage of the Paralympic Games has grown quite a bit in the in the last short while. Whereas for example, all of the content, all of the sport at the Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing this year was all covered live.
So, when, for example, the producer of ice hockey at the Olympic Games is also the person responsible for creating the coverage plan for para-ice hockey, as well. We do that for a number of reasons. You know, to not only have the sport expertise and the sports specialists be able to have their expertise applied to the coverage, but also then from a resource perspective, we know where we will keep certain resources in place from one games to the next, and so by doing each of these games, it allows us to, you know, again apply our expertise and try and make sure that we're telling those stories of those wonderful athletes in a way that people would expect at a high level.
They’re important stories to tell, and so it's exciting that the Paralympics continues to grow and the Youth Olympic Games is also another exciting product that OBS is responsible for the coverage of. The Youth Olympic Games continues to be a product that grows and we do see a number of youth Olympians go on to become and have success at the Olympic Games.
And so it's again an opportunity for us to get those stories out. It's also another opportunity to potentially get to other areas of the world in 2026 that the youth Summer Olympic Games will be in Dakar and I believe it will be the first time that a games of this nature would have been in that continent, and so you know, there's a number of ways that the Youth Olympics continues to spread the power of sport around the world.
CW: Beijing obviously finished, you know, a few a few months ago. We’re a couple of years out now from the next games in Paris, but I'm guessing you're still pretty busy at the moment?
TP: Ohhh yeah. Well, we owed all of our coverage plans, our initial coverage plans, were due essentially the day that the Paralympics completed earlier this year in 2022. So you know, there are multiple projects happening simultaneously. I'm off to Paris myself in a couple of weeks to survey venues to work with the local committee, and we're, you know, it's important to be this far out so that come games time things run smoothly, the way the athletes need them to, the way the crowd and the audiences need them to, you know, to pull them off in a very special way that is always the goal it takes that amount of time in a cycle to prepare.
CW: So Trevor, you were kind enough earlier on to mention my own involvement with OBS, and I certainly feel very privileged to have had the change to attend the various games that I’ve attended. And also to talk about the great family feel that I always felt that there was when working with OBS through those games. So thank you for that.
There is one final question, Trevor, and this is a question I actually asked everyone who joins the podcast, which is: What is it, if anything, that keeps you up at night?
TP: Hmm. Well, in regards to our business, Craig, I assume is the context of that question. Well, to be honest with you, not really. I would like to think that as one matures and becomes comfortable being uncomfortable, knowing that there will always be challenges, there will always be something that's unexpected that will come up, there will always be a person who has a personal issue that you need to support them on during an event like this, and so, knowing that you're going to need to be reactive, that despite your best planning, you will not have been able to anticipate everything, so having some energy reserves, having planned for the unplannable, knowing that we need to help people because it's people who create the product. And so if we have the proper supports in place for people to be able to do great work, then you know, then we're really doing our job.
So I don't let those things keep me up at night anymore because I know that they're coming, and I know that we'll manage them, and I know it'll be ok.
CW: What a great sentiment to end on. Thanks to Trevor for taking the time to talk to us on the podcast and share those great insights into an incredible organization. If you want to find out more, then please check out the Olympics website and in particular the “Summary of the Games” videos. They are pretty amazing as an illustration of what OBS delivers.
Let us know what you think of what Trevor had to say. We are on social—my username on Twitter and Instagram is @CraigAW1969 or, of course, there are the various Avid social accounts you can follow too, across all the major platforms, or email us at [email protected].
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That’s all for now. Thanks again to Trevor, thanks to our producer Matt Diggs and the team, and thanks to you for listening. Join me, Craig Wilson, next time for more in-depth chat about making the media.