The Evolution of Olympics in HD

Ever since Japanese broadcasters aired portions of the 1988 Seoul Summer Games in hi-def, the role of HDTV in Olympic coverage has grown; but it has been a slow growth curve.

It was only two years ago when the United States saw its first hi-definition broadcasts of the Olympics when NBC collaborated with HDNet on daily tape-delayed coverage of the opening and closing ceremonies, along with speed skating, figure skating, ski jumping and ice hockey events.

This year, NBC signed on Sony to sponsor the network's HD coverage of the events, which will include delayed broadcast loops of swimming, diving, gymnastics, track and field, medal rounds of basketball and the men's soccer gold medal final, as well as coverage of the opening and closing ceremonies. On Aug. 13, a hi-def retrospective of the 2002 games will be broadcast in certain time zones.

"It really couldn't be live since only five venues are wired for HD," said Mike McArley, director of marketing communications for NBC, Olympics. "We expect the 2006 Winter Games to be available in HD as the same program seen on NBC; same announcers and coverage."

The HDTV coverage (in 1080i, with 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound) will total nearly 400 hours and will be a separate production from the standard-definition broadcast on the network. NBC will provide separate HDTV listings on its Web site,

NBC's extensive HD coverage of the 2004 Games means the network could run afoul of an FCC rule that has been implemented since the Salt Lake City Games. The so-called "Simulcast Rule," which requires stations to air 75 percent of their analog programming on their digital channel, could limit NBC affiliates from airing more than six hours per day of non-simulcast Olympic programming.

This means "that many will not be able to air any significant part of nearly 400 unique hours of HDTV Olympic coverage over the 17 days of the Olympics," the network told the commission.

NBC has asked for a waiver of the rule, citing the unique aspects of the Games and commission's own interest in promoting digital television. Network officials declined comment on the outcome of the waiver request, which the commission was still considering at press time.

Increasing worldwide interest in HDTV has also spurred the Olympics International Broadcast Centre to get in on the act as well. The Athens Games will mark the first time that broadcast production of the events will be completely digital, and host broadcaster Athens Olympic Broadcasting (AOB) will use four HDTV OB vans to deliver hi-def coverage of gymnastics, aquatics, track and field and the opening and closing ceremonies.

Completed in 2003, IBC's headquarters will host more than 12,000 broadcasters, and at 110,000-square meters, is the second-largest building in Greece. During the two weeks of the Games, the IBC will become the world's largest broadcaster, with a potential worldwide audience of more than 30 billion.

With sales of HDTV sets finally taking off in the U.S., the Olympics also provides a golden opportunity to sell even more.

The Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing (CTAM) and Panasonic have teamed up in a $10 million campaign tied to the Olympics. From July 1 to Aug. 31, consumers who buy selected Panasonic HDTV sets or monitors and then activate digital cable with high-definition service, from participating cable providers, will receive $100 rebates to pay on their cable bill.

And any doubts about the future viability of hi-def coverage of the Olympics were recently put to rest when NBC Sports chief, Dick Ebersol, announced that all of the network's coverage of the 2006 Winter Games from Torino Italy will be in 1080i. HD curling, anyone?

Tom Butts

Tom has covered the broadcast technology market for the past 25 years, including three years handling member communications for the National Association of Broadcasters followed by a year as editor of Video Technology News and DTV Business executive newsletters for Phillips Publishing. In 1999 he launched for internet B2B portal Verticalnet. He is also a charter member of the CTA's Academy of Digital TV Pioneers. Since 2001, he has been editor-in-chief of TV Tech (, the leading source of news and information on broadcast and related media technology and is a frequent contributor and moderator to the brand’s Tech Leadership events.