It will have been just 180 days since the closing ceremony in Tokyo when the curtain is raised for Beijing 2022 on 4 February, with Discovery’s teams working round the clock to prepare for another marathon live production.
“For Beijing, the biggest day will have 15 simultaneous events and when you’re broadcasting that across 19 different languages in 50 markets across Europe with 150 control rooms, things get complex pretty quick,” says Simon Farnsworth, SVP, technology and operations. “There is an enormous amount of complexity across our network.”
This is the US-broadcaster’s third of four Olympics in its €1.3 billion package during which it will air 1,200 live hours across linear and digital platforms, including Discovery+, Eurosport and the Eurosport app. This includes four ‘pop-up’ channels dedicated to disciplines like curling and ice hockey.
Its coverage received 175 million unique views from Europe alone with the Winter Games being used to drive subscriptions north of the 20 million signed to Discovery+ as reported in its most recent figures.
“When we made the decision to put sport on Discovery+, we saw people staying for longer,” says Andrew Georgiou, president, Discovery Sports.
“We saw people buy more annual passes than monthly passes especially among those who experience Olympic and non-Olympic content. Very much our strategy for Discovery+ is putting entertainment and sport on a single platform which means more reasons for consumers to engage. It’s proven to be very successful because churn (the rate of cancellations) between Pyeongchang 2018 and Tokyo improved four times.
“The biggest day will have 15 simultaneous events and when you’re broadcasting that across 19 different languages in 50 markets across Europe with 150 control rooms, things get complex pretty quick,” Simon Farnsworth, Discovery
“Earlier this year we launched our products in Europe onto our global tech stack. That means more tools and a better ability to target individual users and to predict a little bit more what they want. We hope to see an uplift in engagement and retention from Beijing as a result.”
The centre-piece of its presentation is the virtual studio ‘The Cube’ which plays the dual role of keeping more people safe from Covid and enabling the broadcaster to cut the costs of transporting crew and building a physical presence on site.
The set is also designed to give the viewer a sense of the leading-edge technology and expansive coverage that Discovery is bringing to bare.
Designed in Unreal Engine by FRAY Studio, Discovery’s winter Olympics is hosted from a luxurious triple-story ski centre-cum-hotel with panoramic views from the peak of a snow-capped mountain. It wouldn’t look out of place in a Bond film.
Discovery calls it “a vast cinematic winter resort, offering limitless immersive presentation and analysis positions on multiple levels.”
There are 26 different ‘environments’ for the directors to choose from including a very inviting bar populated by animated bar staff (rendered in Viz) and ski lifts leading into the complex.
The mountainous views are not modelled on any in China (the resort 70km outside Beijing is having to pipe in its own snow) and comes with a choice of day/dusk/sunset and night time background graphics. The virtual set, devised by BK Design Projects, is installed at Stockley Park with development of the Cube overseen by Discovery’s director of graphics and innovation Alex Dinnin.
Augmented reality built by creative agency Girraphic to closely resemble athletes from winter disciplines like downhill skiing and bobsleigh will ‘float’ in the Cube, for experts to analyse the minutiae of an athletes’ movements and aerodynamics.
Green screens at studios across Europe enable the ‘teleportation’ of people into the Cube. Athletes will also be ‘beamed’ in live for three-dimensional interview from Beijing.
“Earlier this year we launched our products in Europe onto our global tech stack. That means more tools and a better ability to target individual users and to predict a little bit more what they want,” Andrew Georgiou, Discovery
“This is a real-world tool and environment where you need to be malleable,” says Scott Young, SVP Content and Production. “Using a gaming platform like Unreal allows us to build much faster. It’s not real-time but it is [on par with] pre-production in TV terms. There’s no point having this technology without experts to talk authoritatively about what audiences are seeing. This is about explaining to our audience the complexities of what the athletes are facing.”
Technical production Beijing to Europe
As soon as the flame extinguished in Tokyo, Discovery packed up its facilities (built and integrated by NEP) and shipped them to storage in China before the task of reassembly. It has around 50 team members on site now with 1,000 people producing the games in Europe.
Once again, Discovery is taking source feeds from host broadcaster OBS as well as its own ancillary feeds, derived from 36 ENG kits and 20 video journalist kits. Some LTE backpacks will be able to tap the 5G network installed by China Unicom around Games venues.
All material passes through its Broadcast Operations Centre (BOC) in Beijing which is designed to be operated by staff locally and also entirely virtually from London.
“We did that to manage risk from Covid. If people get sick we’d be up the creek without paddle but we can control it all remotely over IP,” says Farnsworth.
Due to mounting Covid cases in the city, NBC Sports has decided not to send any of its commentator teams to China.
Three and half thousand kilometres of fibre optic cable, geo diverse and redundant together with satellite, ingest the feeds from the BOC into data centres in London and Hilversum. The data centers host the entire post production technology from slo-mo replay machines, graphics engines, vision mixers and Premiere Pro with operators accessing control surfaces remotely from 150 control rooms around Europe.
This workflow caters for localised content. A control room in Oslo, for example, might not want so much ice skating for viewers in Norway but does want more biathlon so relevant signals are routed accordingly.
The content itself is created in the data centers then handed off to end distribution points whether digital feeds or traditional affiliates.
“We can configure a control room in five minutes now because that kit is all controlled by our central control systems over IP ST 2110.”
The post production equipment sits on a virtualised Grass Valley layer hosted in AWS. Discovery has built its own cloud-based remote commentary system for any of its commentator to log on to and voice against the live video stream. This is sent back to the data centre for onward distribution.
Farnsworth says, “We’ve built our own private cloud as well as using public cloud apps where appropriate. We still use private cloud for live switching because we want latency to be as low as possible. There is still a challenge with some public cloud in terms of latency for live production.”
The bulk of Discovery’s output will be HD but it is producing one pop-up 4K UHD channel available on linear and digital platforms. A native 50hz from OBS means Discovery doesn’t have to convert frame rates for European transmission.
To reduce latency further it is compressing video for production in JPEG-XS. “We can’t control the laws of physics but what we can do is give our production crew the best chance to produce content as quick as they can by using JPEG-XS encoding which is the lowest possible latency we could find with the right video quality.”
Farnsworth says, “We are arguably one of the largest networks anywhere in the world. Our WAN is bigger than Cisco’s Webex [video conferencing] network. We have 400Gig connections to all our main sites which is enough bandwidth to run JPEG-XS at 170Mbps. We’ve worked with our production folks a lot particularly around vision mixing using IP in the cloud and everybody is super comfortable with that now.”
The production is also able to access Content+, a database managed by OBS and continually stocked by new video clips. “We’ve written an API gateway to Content+ and are constantly pushing new content from it into our cloud system.”
He adds: “It can be exciting but also nerve-wracking. For example, in PyeongChang we had fibre optic cables breaking due to earthquakes in Taiwan, we had diggers in Edmonton in Canada digging up cables. So, we have teams round the clock monitoring this 24/7 to ensure we give you guys the presenters the best chance to provide the best possible experience for our consumers.”
Discovery was on the front foot to counter potential criticism of its role in ‘sports washing’ China’s human rights record. US and French governments have declared the country’s treatment of the Uyghurs as genocide while many questions remain about the fate of female tennis star Peng Shui.
“There is no doubt that human rights in China is a massively important issue,” said Georgiou. “Discovery is really focussed on social issues and we’ve made a big commitment to diversity and inclusion within our own organisation. It’s not a topic that we want to shy away from, we’re going to address it.”
“We are a sports broadcaster not a news service,” Georgiou added. “We are conscious of not straying into news but by the same token when an athlete starts to address these topics as they relate to the sport we will be covering them because they are a natural part of the narrative of the Olympics and within our gift to talk about them.”