Interview: Ben Gallop, Head, BBC Sport Interactive: Taking Olympics Universal

imageWhile NBC faces criticism over its digital offering, over in the UK, the BBC is roaring on with an all-out, open strategy for its biggest ever interactive sports event, comprising multiple live streams, rolling text updates, Flickr photos – and no holding live back for prime time. BBC Sport Interactive head Ben Gallop, a veteran of previous Olympic campaigns, told me video output has doubled and the website clocked more video views in the first two days of these games than during the entire fortnight at Athens 2004: “We’re just seeing enormous traffic, record levels that we’ve frankly never seen before…”

Though the array of competitons taking place in China might give a scheduler a headache, some 2,750 hours of coverage are made available behind the interactive red button on digital TV platforms, where viewers can make their own selection from up to seven simultaneous events, picture-in-picture…

Interactive: “There isn’t an event like the Olympics in terms of offering viewer choice, and we know from previous games that nothing drives red button usage the way the Olympics does. In 2004, the first interactive Olympics we did, we had more than 10 million people go interactive just on the satellite platform – that’s more than double the next most popular event the BBC’s ever done, Wimbledon with about four million. More than anything we can do – whether it’s Glastonbury or another sports event – the Olympics gets people looking on interactive TV.”

Online: All the iTV streams are also pumped on to the web, along with rolling text updates, geo-tagged Twitter streams and map mashups. But vdeo is the big draw and the Olympics site is mainly benefiting from BBC News and Sport sites’ abandonment of pop-up Windows Media Video and RealVideo in favour of in-page Flash video. Short recorded clips within stories are proving popular: “These games are slightly antisocial, happening when most people in the country are either in bed or in work. The opportunities for people to just sit in front of the telly all day, waiting for the action, aren’t as obvious as Athens, when it was a European timezone. They need to get a fix of the action wherever they are – that means we need to offer them a really strong on-demand service and make sure we make the live action available wherever they are.”

Rights: With so much more video being pumped out, Gallop is conscious of the BBC’s duty to protect that content: “The IOC are among the most stringent in sports rights when it comes to digital platforms, and we have a very strict arrangement with them that our content must not leak outside the UK.” But, while NBC has worked hard on fingerprinting solutions to remove its Olympics output from sites like YouTube, Gallop’s BBC is far more hands-off: “That’s really for the IOC, that’s their role to monitor and see what happens. We’re just not in a position to control how people use TV coverage and put it up online.”

iPlayer: The VOD service, available online and TV, is used for catch-up of whole sports events, while the website is used to show short clips and live action: “When it comes to sport, the real appeal is with the BBC Sport website”, Gallop said. What’s more, though it hosts all BBC programmes from the last week, the Olympics undertaking is so large that iPlayer is unable to host all aired Olympics videos as VOD, Gallop said – not for rights concerns, “but because of bandwidth issues”.

On NBC: “Every broadcaster has a strategy for dealing with something like this. We are not a commercial organisation, NBC are; that may be why they’ve chosen to hold back some of their content from the web. For us, it’s all about universal access, we want universal reach, we’re not about making money, we just want more and more people to access the games in however many ways they want to. There aren’t any limitations for us, I’m sure they have very different considerations.”

London 2012: The BBC is experimenting delivering video clips to T-Mobile customers via its mobile Olympics site; other networks don’t seem to have been able to cope with the requirements: “We’ve had discussions with all the mobile operators, it hasn’t been possible to work with all of them on it, largely for technical reasons. In terms of challenges, that’s been an interesting one… We have an editorial vision for what we want to achieve, but it’s working in the realities of the UK mobile market; there are challenges. In the future, it’s something we want to do with all of them.

“This particular platform is more about how it develops in the future. We don’t see it as a mature service. Beijing is an end in itself, but it’s also a stepping stone for London – we want to try things out, see how they work to learn for four years’ time.” The main priority is to ensure that “every bit of action” is made available digitally.