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As The World Turned Another Olympian Feat For Satellites

By Staff Writer | November 10, 2000

      By Robert Wold

      The reviews are in. Some oracles opined that the Olympics are now “as much about television and show business as they are about sports, and have been for a long time.” Others assayed the 27th Olympiad as history’s “most colossal Gold Rush.” One blithe spirit said the Games of the future will serve “our new Millennial Generation,” favoring those among us glued not to television but the Internet.

      Nowhere in the reviews, as expected, were there any acknowledgements of the Olympian performances of communication satellites-35 of them, actually-that were the very nexus for the biggest show on Earth being seen over all the Earth.

      Tv Is The Money Machine

      The International Olympic Committee (IOC) predicted at the beginning of the 2000 Games that it would be “the world’s most-watched sporting event in history,” and that TV would be in a record 220 countries and territories with an estimated reach of 3.7 billion people in a global population of 6 billion.

      If satellites are the thoroughbreds on which television’s global distribution rides, the satellite industry should be very proud. Juan Samaranch, the president of the IOC, said recently, “Since the 1950s, no industry has been more crucial to (our success)…than television broadcast. Television is the engine that drives the worldwide promotion of the games.”

      The Sydney 2000 Games, for worldwide TV rights alone, received more than $1.3 billion. Of this income, $798 million went to the local Sydney Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG).

      These negotiated fees, for exclusive local first rights to show medal competitions on TV, came from 15 sources and ranged from $705 million for NBC in the United States down to $200,000 for the Caribbean Broadcasting Union, which includes 28 full members in 20 Caribbean nations and territories ranging from Aruba to Trinidad.

      NBC, spending $705 million to secure exclusive rights in the highly competitive U.S. TV market, is the Olympics Movement’s largest single source of revenue. That will continue when NBC pays $545 million for the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City; $793 million for the 2004 Summer Games in Athens; $613 million for the 2006 Winter Games in Turino, Italy; and $894 million for the 2008 Games in a location yet to be selected by the IOC.

      For the 2000 Games, NBC says it spent at least an additional $200 million for production, which includes their costs for transmissions using both satellite and optical fiber facilities. NBC also sold all of its commercial time on NBC, CNBC and MSNBC for about $900 million. If the 2000 Games telecasts failed to reach guaranteed audience ratings, NBC will need to provide “make good” spots to advertisers holding guarantees.

      When The Good Times Began

      Television technology, such as it was, first surfaced in 1936 in Berlin. Adolf Hitler wanted to show off new German technology, so 25 large screens with live pictures from selected events were set up for free viewing. Hitler also underwrote the Olympics’ first documentary film, Leni Riefenstahl’s “Olympia.”

      After a 12-year hiatus during World War II, the Olympic Games resumed in 1948 in London. The British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) televised a few events locally but very few TV sets existed.

      During the 1950s, network executives for the new TV medium considered sports to be more news than entertainment. In Melbourne before the 1956 Games, local organizers were convinced by a promoter that they could produce their own motion picture documentary and market the rights to film clips for news use by the networks and newsreel companies in the United States and Britain.

      This arrogant notion of fees and limited rights to “news film” caused a boycott by the U.S. and British news organizations. The only TV that saw air outside Australia was a delayed, syndicated series of six half-hour film programs produced by Fremantle and hosted by Tom Harmon and Bob Mathias. The series was purchased by a few independent TV stations including New York’s WPIX.

      The then-president of the IOC was Avery Brundage, an American once described by a Chicago newspaper reporter as “the inventor of stuffed shirts.” It was Brundage who had been lobbied by the networks and newsreel firms to change Australia’s posture, which he failed to accomplish. Asked later by reporters whether the TV boycott of Melbourne had hurt the Olympics, he replied, “Dear friends, we in the IOC have done well without TV for 60 years and will do so certainly for the next 60 years, too.”

      By 1956-57 in the United States, new technologies of videotaping and color TV had come into play. Also, jet-powered airplanes had begun to fly by the late ’50s and transcontinental microwave links built by AT&T Long Lines finally made it possible for networks to originate live television from the West Coast and reach nearly all of their stations.

      Cbs Puts Up The First Money

      In 1959 the third-ranking U.S. network was ABC but it had obtained an option to acquire U.S. TV rights for the Winter Games, to be staged in February 1960 at remote Squaw Valley, CA. Whereas NBC, then owned by RCA, had no interest, CBS News was unhappy about losing a promising opportunity to ABC. And then ABC backed out.

      Encouraged by his sports-news lieutenants, Tex Schramm and Bill MacPhail, the late Sig Mickelson–then head of CBS News–acquired the Squaw Valley rights for only $50,000. When the U.S. hockey team–all amateurs–defeated the Soviet Union and then Czechoslovakia to win gold medals, live on CBS TV, it was a 1960 prelude for the “Miracle on Ice” show from Lake Placid 20 years later.

      All Roads Lead To Rome

      Next came the Summer Games in Rome that began on August 25, 1960.

      CBS again out-maneuvered ABC and bought the U.S. rights. CBS also had a scheme that would have been impossible four years earlier in Melbourne: to jet-fly videotapes daily from Rome to New York, picking up six hours headed west in nine-hour, non-stop commercial flights. At the beginning, CBS managed to make air on the same calendar day, but freight- shipping uncertainties caused them to relax and broadcast one day late for the duration.

      CBS paid $750,000 to Italy’s RAI, the host broadcaster, for U.S. rights and limited access to RAI’s own visuals.

      In his memoir published in 1998, “The Decade That Shaped Television News,” Mickelson recalled Squaw Valley and Rome. “It created for the first time in Olympic history a vicarious feeling of presence that could never have been achieved without the electronic camera,” he wrote. “And it focused attention on the…games far exceeding anything seen previously.”

      The Syncom Solution

      In the early 1960s the Americans and Soviets were still engaged in a Cold War that would last until 1990. The decade of the ’60s was the peak of the so-called Space Race.

      Government agencies NASA and the Department of Defense (DoD), together and separately, were financing the development of such new technologies as communication satellites.

      One manufacturer–Hughes Aircraft Co.–had independently developed what it felt strongly would answer to the communication satellite challenge, given launching powers of the then-era’s payload boosters. Hughes survived a political struggle to win a position in the experimental sweepstakes being conducted by NASA.

      During 1960 to 1964, there were NASA tests of the popular Echo balloon; AT&T’s highly-publicized Telstar; the Relay series built for NASA by a proud RCA; and Hughes’ Syncom entry. Syncom won the competition hands-down by achieving, exclusively, both geosynchronous and geostationary status. Behind the scenes there had been intense corporate rivalries as all aimed to be selected to build satellites for the future by the new Communications Satellite Corp. (Comsat).

      At the Winter Games of 1964 in Innsbruck, Austria, some experimental TV pictures were transmitted on Relay 1 to a handful of international earth stations. Because Relay, like Telstar, was a low-altitude satellite, the lengths of coverage were short.

      Meanwhile, the 1964 Summer Games were to be in Tokyo. After watching the CBS successes of 1960, NBC had changed its attitude about the Olympics and delivered the winning bid for U.S. TV rights. NBC paid NHK, Japan’s host broadcaster, $1.5 million for the rights to show videotapes in the United States which NHK would help NBC prepare.

      Just as CBS had done in Rome, NBC planned to ship videotapes to the United States by jet aircraft. Flights from Tokyo would refuel at Anchorage and then continue to Seattle. From there the taped contents would be fed via AT&T terrestrial links to NBC in New York, where commercials could be inserted and contents relayed at last to NBC’s nationwide network.

      When Japanese government officials learned that the United States experimental Syncom 3 satellite had achieved geostationary orbit, that it was hovering above the equator near the international date line, and that it was prepared for possible experimental relays of live TV from Tokyo’s Olympics to the U.S. West Coast, Japan lobbied the U.S. State Department to make the experiment happen.

      A difficult struggle ensued between Washington–in particular, the State Department, NASA and the new Comsat–and NBC, which was adamant about preserving its rights and its scheme to use delayed-broadcast videotapes. The driving force then was no different than the situation NBC faced in Sydney 36 years later: the extreme time difference calling for time-shifted broadcasting back home to maximize audience sizes and advertising rates.

      In the end, compromise arrangements were made to televise, live by satellite, only the Opening Ceremonies. Emperor Hirohito and the Empress Nagako presided as the program (in black and white) began on a Saturday morning at 1:00 a.m. in the United States’ Eastern time zone.

      TV critic Jack Gould’s page one review in the New York Times set the tone for the future.

      Gould began, “Live television coverage of this morning’s opening of the Olympic Games in Tokyo was of superlative quality, a triumph of electronic technology that was almost breathtaking in its implications for global communications.”

      That the program continued without interruption for more than two hours was also praised by Gould and other reviewers. The United States had witnessed live and staged TV bursts from London via Telstar and Relay, but viewing lengths were always less than 20 minutes due to the satellites’ low-altitude orbits.

      Another factor interceded. To enable a rocket-powered boost to 22,300 miles above the equator, a feat never before accomplished, Syncom 3 had to be very light and simple. It could not transport both video and audio, so the audio from Tokyo was dispatched via undersea coaxial cable and married in California to the satellite-transported video.

      After the opening ceremonies, NBC’s rights prevailed and no more live telecasts from the 1964 Olympics were seen in the United States.

      Personnel from NASA, Hughes, Comsat and NHK Tokyo held forth, however, at the California downlink site. More live content was transmitted via “land-lines” to Montreal for use by CBC, and for a second-hop satellite feed to Europe via the experimental Relay 1. For backup, the EBU used polar air routes to import videotapes from Tokyo.

      So, for two weeks in October 1964, a feisty world had been shrunk by satellite TV. Show business, television, the IOC and a nascent satellite industry had collectively taken a big step forward and would never look back.

      Fast Forward To Sydney 2000

      For more than two weeks, host broadcaster SOBO (Sydney Olympics Broadcasting Organization) provided rights holders with 3,400 hours of live video from 28 different sports at 37 venues. Working from the International Broadcasting Center (IBC) the rights-holders, representing 220 countries, could select from all this digital content, add commentaries and generally tailor unilateral or multilateral channels to accommodate languages and event preferences back home.

      Sydney 2000 became history’s biggest multi-nation, five-ring TV circus, more complex for the medium than those Millennium weekend networks and previous Olympics, Live Aid, and even 1969’s first mingling with men on the moon.

      Biggest Kid On The Block: Nbc

      The United States’ NBC, which paid by far the biggest rights fee, also occupied 75,000 square feet, the largest production space at Sydney’s IBC.

      Stirring controversy, especially for anyone old enough to recall the 1964 situations, NBC decided early-on to time-shift all 2000 Olympics programs on NBC, MSNBC and CNBC to optimize audience sizes and commercial values.

      NBC’s multiple program streams, except for commercials, were produced in Sydney and transmitted to New York (and to NBC Burbank for diversity and backup). All commercials were inserted at New York.

      To safely transport its valuable content back home, NBC used diverse satellite paths on all three of Intelsat’s POR (Pacific Ocean Region) satellites, numbers 701, 702 and 802. Intelsat’s uplinking was provided by Telstra, its Australian signatory. NBC’s downlinking in California was also quietly diversified, using AT&T earth stations at Triunfo Pass and Salt Creek. At these sites, contents were seamlessly converted by AT&T to secure T-45, terrestrial digital fiber deliveries from the satellite earth stations to NBC’s control center in New York.

      GE Americom’s GE 1 and K2 satellites provided domestic deliveries from New York to NBC’s broadcast stations. CNBC used Panamsat’s Galaxy 5 and MSNBC used Galaxy 1R as the primary paths to cable and direct-to-home satellite system headends.

      Satellites Link The Globe

      Most of the rights holders’ primary satellite transponder leases were for terms of at least one month.

      Of interest to professionals in the satellite industry were the numerous relays and turnarounds, such as in the electronic odyssey designed by New Zealand’s TVNZ Satellite Services, a reseller with clients including the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union (ABU) and the African broadcasters (including SABC and M-Net Supersport).

      TVNZ selected the New Skies 703 satellite at 57 degreesE to berth its customers. TVNZ used capacity it leases on Intelsat’s 701 to relay content from Sydney to Perth, Australia, where a TVNZ-owned uplink accessed the NSS 703. Eight digital channels, six of which were multilateral, enabled numerous local Asian broadcasters to be, in the eyes of their homeland viewers, “at the Olympics.”

      From South Africa, the NSS 703 signals were “turned around” (re-uplinked) to PAS 4 and PAS 7 to reach more African countries and experienced yet another turnaround in Spain, where PAS 7 handed off to Eutelsat’s new W4, a satellite with footprints south into Central Africa and far east into Russia.

      And so it was, a really big show, on stage around the globe for more than two weeks. It was another quadrennial mix of show biz, TV and Olympics. Offstage, an invisible yet ubiquitous squadron of communication satellites once again delivered an electronic saga to a virtual everywhere.

      Robert N. Wold is a contributing writer for Phillips Publishing. He is based in California and may be reached by e-mail at [email protected]