David Owen ©ITG

Yiannis Exarchos gets straight to the point. "In the digital world, the need for volumes of content is practically insatiable," the chief executive of Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) says.

This simple fact has huge consequences for the media industry. Most obviously, the best creative talent is in high demand and is often booked up for years in advance.

But the industry's largely hidden technical underpinnings are being transformed too. For a highly media-dependent mega-event owner like the International Olympic Committee (IOC), this has critical and far-reaching repercussions, even if this might not be immediately apparent to the casual sports-lover.

Exarchos, an unhurried, unflappable character from the Olympic cradle of Greece explains.

"In Athens 2004," he says, "all the programming of all rights-holders was around 43,000 hours. In Rio 2016 it was around 500,000 hours. In Tokyo it will be far more than that.

"Clearly, the need of the system to be fed with content of different types, different formats and so on is insatiable and it is difficult to scale that in traditional production methods.

"For a number of years now, I would say since Beijing, we started thinking it would not be sustainable if we continued producing more and more broadcasters broadcasting more and more with traditional ways of doing things.

"This has led us in a number of initiatives…many of them are on the back-end of things: how we aggregate and distribute content.

"In Tokyo we will produce close to 10,000 hours over 17 days. If every one of the broadcasters wanted to take all this content back home on [the ultra high-definition format we are producing], the cost would be enormous.

"So it is clear that there is no way of supporting that from an aggregation, processing and transmission point of view in traditional ways. 

"We had to think differently.

"This is why we jumped on the idea of the Cloud, because we believe that at the end of the day this is what will facilitate all that."

Yiannis Exarchos, the chief executive of Olympic Broadcasting Services, has highlighted the importance of the Cloud ©Getty Images
Yiannis Exarchos, the chief executive of Olympic Broadcasting Services, has highlighted the importance of the Cloud ©Getty Images

Speaking as a hopelessly un-tech-savvy middle-aged man, on the rare occasions when the Cloud had flickered across my consciousness, I imagined it to be a vast, centralised data warehouse. Thanks to two conversations I had in Lausanne this week, one with Exarchos, the other which I will go into in a moment, I now know that there is more to it than that.

"Today," Exarchos continues, "video is a little bit the holy grail of Cloud technologies. [These] are extremely advanced for many, many services, but because of the volumes involved, videos are very heavy files…

"Ultimately," he says, not only storage, "but also parts of the processing, editing, library, archiving, metadata and so on need to be transferred to the Cloud, especially in events that scale very violently.

"As I said, we produce 10,000 hours in 17 days during the Olympics. I do believe that there are broadcasters who produce 10,000 hours a year. So even from the point of view of handling this content, it is very, very difficult…

"This is why we saw the big opportunity with Alibaba.

"We have created together an evolving solution which we call OBS Cloud."

This brings me to that other conversation, which was with Chris Tung, chief marketing officer of the Alibaba Group, the Chinese e-commerce giant which has been a member of the Olympic Partner (TOP) IOC worldwide sponsorship programme for the past three years. 

Covering the e-commerce platform services and Cloud services product categories, this has been bubbling along more quietly than I for one had anticipated. However, with the first of the three Summer Games that the partnership initially covers – Tokyo 2020 – approaching fast, I get the feeling that it is about to crank up considerably.

Asked why Alibaba – whose revenues in the year to end-March 2019 exceeded $56 billion (£43 billion/€50 billion), with a figure of over $70 billion (£54 billion/€63 billion) expected for the year to end-March 2020 – felt it worth investing several hundred million dollars in sponsoring the IOC, Tung mentioned, first, the company's globalisation strategy, but, second, the Games' potential role as a showcase to demonstrate what Alibaba technology can do.

"We actually want to drive actively the transformation, a new way of running the Games," he tells me. "We actively want to click it up a notch."

Such is the scale of Alibaba's e-commerce operations that the Cloud still appears to be a relatively small, though fast-growing, part of its business. In the first three months of 2019, Cloud computing revenue was said to be up 76 per cent year-on-year to $1.15 billion (£880 million/€1 billion). The company seems, nevertheless, to be regarded as one of the Big Three in the sector, alongside Amazon and Microsoft.

Says Tung: "We have launched OBS Cloud with the purpose of helping media transformation digitally. Today it takes a lot of lead-time for them to prepare on-site production for such a big event and there is a huge effort on transitions in pre-production between different locations.

"They are spending lots of money in transmission of video-based rich content over the continents and they are spending lots of money sending people, the crews and equipment on-site to make sure everything is captured right.

"That's the old way."

Alibaba's Chris Tung has predicted a new way of running the technical side of the Olympic Games ©Getty Images
Alibaba's Chris Tung has predicted a new way of running the technical side of the Olympic Games ©Getty Images

Potentially then, this could save broadcasters a lot of money, but Tung also suggests it will aid flexibility in content creation. It is at this point that the v-word – video – comes up again.

"You know that short-form videos are quite popular right now on social media," Tung says. "And young people love to watch highlights rather than the whole game; they don't have the time and patience for the whole game.

"So how do you produce thousands of formats of highlights for a single Games, tailored to the local audience taste?

"All that digital production can be supported by the Cloud capability in terms of tagging the right content, selecting the right content and doing smart editing by machine.

"In no time we will be able to create lots of different formats of content for the same Games that fits thousands of different needs in real time. Those are the capabilities that are also hosted on Cloud.

"So it is not just storage, but editing, processing, transmitting. You are talking about capability as well."

With so many Olympic rights-holders, if things go well, the broadcasters might then start doing your marketing for you, I chip in.

"If they are happy," Tung concurs, adding: "We will make it work more and more, Games by Games.

"We are seeing some of our ideas in action in Lausanne 2020 and more for Tokyo 2020. There will be lots more still in Beijing 2022. As you can imagine, this is our home town.

"After Beijing 2022, I think the whole world will be more than confident to adopt some of the innovations that we have proven through the previous Games.

"So you will naturally expect Paris 2024 and LA 2028 to adopt more and elevate the game to another level with the technology."

Exciting stuff. I am conscious, however, that Tung, while evidently a very bright, aware and knowledgeable individual, is a marketing man – it is his job to sell stuff. Exarchos, as I would have expected, sounds a tad more cautious.

"For this Cloud to work well in the Games," he tells me, "you need a number of things that have to do for example with latency and robustness of transmission around different parts of the world, even if your destination is the Cloud.

"Latency is the measure of time between…the lens of the camera and your TV screen. The more we go digital, the more latency that starts existing. This is because digital, by definition, is encoding analogue signals into zeros and ones. All these things take time.

Alibaba have promised several innovations at their home Beijing 2022 Games ©Getty Images
Alibaba have promised several innovations at their home Beijing 2022 Games ©Getty Images

"So in order to start reducing all that, but most importantly to maintain quality, you need to apply a very structured, very good broadcast telecom network.

"OBS has been doing that to help broadcasters since London. No longer do broadcasters, with the exception of one or two very big ones, carry their own signals from the Games.

"[Mostly] they get them delivered back to their own home bases. Why? Because OBS puts together a worldwide distribution network based on fibre and satellite. Broadcasters can pick up most of these signals wherever they are in the world. At any given moment there are more than 1,400 reception-points around the globe.

"Why is this beneficial? Because we get contributions from all of these broadcasters and we build one single network. Otherwise they would need each and every one of them to pay telecom companies to do that, which is unaffordable.

"We now help Alibaba to put their Cloud technologies on the back of this infrastructure. So we reach their main Cloud house, wherever they are in the world, because Cloud servers are not in the clouds, they are physically somewhere…

"It is like we have virtualised a little bit the whole broadcast operation.

"In theory this could even start bypassing the International Broadcast Centre (IBC) [that is the focal-point of media operations at any Olympic Games].

"Already we offer a lot of services directly from the venues to back home."

Exarchos baulks however when I mention that one well-known Olympic business figure had suggested half-jokingly that there might no longer be an IBC by the time of the LA 2028 Summer Games.

"No – it is impossible not to have an IBC, but it may have a very different architecture," he responds. "I am among those who say that we should start looking at the IBC in a different way."

Nevertheless: "The broadcast operation is an operation with 20,000 people. There needs to be a place for them to work.

"But this does not mean that broadcasters will continue shipping servers, hardware and so on around the world."

"Servers can increasingly be substituted by the Cloud," Exarchos elaborates. "I am not saying that you can do everything. There is also a cost factor. But it is only a matter of time before this becomes cost-effective – maybe in two or three years…it is inevitable. It is just a matter of time before it happens."

At that point, a lot of engineers will no longer need to come to the Games, I suggest, envisaging yet another industry disrupted by the unstoppable tech revolution.

"This is actually I think one of the things that is a little bit of an obstacle in progress," Exarchos observes, "the fact that you have so many people who have spent all their lives – great people – working in a certain way, and all of a sudden…"

Alibaba and OBS will work together on the latest in Cloud technology ©Getty Images
Alibaba and OBS will work together on the latest in Cloud technology ©Getty Images

He goes on: "We are very aggressive on that front because it is such a huge benefit for what we are doing.

"If you are a traditional broadcaster and you don't do many operations on digital, [or] need to produce so many flavours of content for different platforms and so on, you can still continue doing that, [though] it is not sustainable in the long-term future.

"For us who produce massive amounts of social media content, digital content, content for mobile phones, different flavours of resolutions and so on, to be creating parallel complete structures of production is crazy. And the same is increasingly so for the most sophisticated broadcasters.

"It is interesting that for the digital broadcasters – broadcasters who started in the digital world – you don't need to persuade them about all that. They get it.

"More traditional broadcasters…are more resistant." 

Allowing Alibaba's Tung the final word, it is clear that the broadcast operation is not the only aspect of putting on an Olympic Games that is likely to be transformed by Cloud technology. The Chinese company also has its eye on making ticketing more efficient.

"Our goal for Beijing 2022," Tung tells me, "is to really make the Games a truly Cloud-based Olympic Games, the first ever.

"For example, we have been named as the official ticketing platform and service provider. So from Beijing all the spectators will be able to buy tickets digitally and redistribute their ticket digitally.

"The whole ticketing service will be operated in a much more efficient and much more cost-efficient and probably a more profitable way...

"Also through the digital ticketing experience, spectators will be able to get more information and guidance during Games time in terms of how to maximise their time in Beijing…

"We will achieve that through a very robust ticketing system that we are building right now.

"That system will be well-established to support future Games as well. Future Games will also have this digital ticketing capability…

"We basically are building a hub to help manage the creation, allocation, the retail sales online of the ticketing system.

"If there is still a necessary offline distributor that we need to work with, they will be able to work with the system directly. This is positioned to service the mandatory needs of the operation."

Big changes, then, for ticketing, as well as Olympic and, one presumes, other areas of broadcasting lie ahead. Expect these two men, Exarchos and Tung, to be at the heart of this transformation.