In these difficult times, sports’ ability to bring people together is missed more than ever. Fans are a key component of the Olympic Games, and the sports eco-system in general.
After a year of disruption to sporting events around the world, the decision to bar all spectators from Olympic venues undoubtedly casts a pall over the event’s televised experience – but preparations have been made to mediate the lack of crowd atmosphere, color and noise.
For its part, the Games’ host broadcaster Olympic Broadcasting Services, is offering digital remote fan engagement solutions. These include an online ‘Cheer Map and a ‘Fan Video Wall’ that brings audience participation direct to the venues. Audiences can access the Cheer Map and Fan Video Wall feature if rights holders choose to take it up, as well as at the Tokyo 2020 section at Olympics.com.
OBS will facilitate what it calls ‘Athlete Moments’, allowing athletes at selected venues to connect with their family and friends directly after their event, though it’s not clear how this will done.
These concepts were planned before the Japan government bowed to internal pressure to make the Tokyo games entirely spectator free.
Yet while OBS has a 62-page booklet outlining all of its many production plans for the event, just one is devoted to virtual fan attendance.
The dirth of spectators, a less than enthusiastic Japanese public and difficulties for rights holder camera crews to travel to let alone within the country mean the usual color and cultural impact of the host city will be absent.
The emotional reaction of athletes to performances infront of flag waving fans will be absent. Medal ceremonies will inevitably feel drained.
OBS is offering an arsenal of production innovations it hopes will distract the viewer and engage them in the action.
These include 110 hours of VR coverage from the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, as well as from select sports like beach volleyball and gymnastics. There are also VOD clips captured in 180 or 360-degrees of athletes during their training sessions to give the VR viewer some idea of what it is like to be an Olympic athlete.
Intel’s True View technology will be used to produce 360-degree replay during basketball matches and other multi-camera replay systems will be used to cover gymnastics, athletics, BMX freestyle, street skateboard, sport climbing and volleyball.
Live tracking data will be used to produce graphical overlays to provide an inside view into the results of a race and how athletes perform and compare against one another. Archers will have their biometric data from pulse and even skin color changes translated into a on-screen graphics and fans of debut Olympic sport climbing will find coverage enhanced with a 3D representation of the holds, angles and walls.
“Immersive tech offers an incredible opportunity, enabling fans to feel like they’re at the Olympics, even when they’re watching the Games from home,” says Matt Millington, OBS Director of Digital Content Production. “Beyond providing viewers with the feeling of ‘being there’, we are trying to create content that resonates. These new immersive experiences are expanding the story by delivering new viewpoints and perspectives that, not only allow for a greater appreciation of the action, but create further engagement.”
Atmospheric audio remains a major issue though and not catered for in OBS’ plans. Broadcasters have used artificial audio tracks of behind-closed-doors sports coverage including of NFL matches this part year, but the multi-disciplinary Games presents a tall order to match.
“It becomes all the more important to have people mic’d,” legendary sportscaster and current CNN pundit Bob Costas explained on CNN.
“To have the coaches mic’d. To have boom mic’s close by. That’s really going to be a key. All that kind of peripheral stuff from the competitors and the support staff are going to become more important than ever.”
Costas noted the dilemna facing Olympics broadcasters. That with football, baseball, and basketball there is a “certain familiar ambiance” that an “experienced audio producer can approximate” but not so with less familiar, niche events.
“Is the sound at a diving venue the same sound at a track and field venue? Is it the same in gymnastics as it is in swimming? The worst thing is to have it contrived. Think about how we wince at the laugh tracks at the old bad sitcoms. It’s a fine line to walk.”
NBCU is having to make these decisions. The broadcaster and its parent, Comcast, paid $4.4 billion for the rights to cover the Olympics in the U.S. through 2020, has already secured more than $1.2 billion in has ad commitments for the Tokyo Games, and needs to promote a Winter Games that take place in Beijing in just six months’ time.
It intends to create emotional response to the competition by doing live two-ways between competing athletes in Tokyo and their friends and family back home.
“What is not known yet is whether they [the Olympic organizers] will put crowd noise in, and how they will do potentially seat fillers, placards or whatever,” NBCUniversal chairman of television and streaming Mark Lazarus told The Hollywood Reporter.
“Certainly, when you have a full building, that excitement can come through on television,” Lazarus added. “I think we are fortunate to be in 2021, where you can use audio to build energy on television, and in buildings.”
The vibrancy and spectacle of fans back in stadia was brought home during the recent UEFA Euro soccer tournament. London’s Wembley stadium hosted 60,000 fans – a two thirds seat capacity – for the final between Italy and England at the weekend with fans also present in fan parks.
Whatever digital techniques or stadium blocking close-up shots that OBS deploy it will be a curious event that may not sustain televisual interest as much as it hoped.