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  • Tuesday Talk: Olympic Broadcast Chief Manolo Romero


    Romero steps down at the end of the year as head of Olympic Broadcast Services.(ATR/Panasonic Lumix)
    (ATR) He’s known as the world’s authority on broadcast coverage of the Olympics.

    Manolo Romero, 71, started his Olympic career in Mexico City. At the 1992 Games in Barcelona he headed host broadcast operations for the first time; 10 Games later, London will be his last.

    Since starting out producing Olympic coverage, Romero has seen the transformation of broadcasting from analog to digital, from ancient cathode ray cameras to high definition equipment.

    Organizationally, he presided over the formation in 2001 of Olympic Broadcast Services, the Madrid-based firm owned by the IOC responsible for providing host broadcast services for the Olympics, Youth Olympic Games and the Paralympics.

    As the Olympics came to a close in London last month, Around the Rings Editor Ed Hula talked to Romero about London, future trends and preparations for the next Games.

    Around the Rings: What’s your assessment of London?

    MR: I think OBS is doing a fine job. I don’t want to seem arrogant but so far, you know, in London to do as much possible coverage, I think we have achieved. I think all the broadcasters are very happy with the success of our work and we received very good ratings and very good notes for the coverage. So, we are happy. If they are happy, we are happy.

    ATR: There were some instances that popped up, the way Andy Murray’s victory was covered, some other critiques. I’ve never heard criticism leveled against OBS like that. Is it fair, unfair?

    MR: I think it’s unfair because what we do is something that we want to do for the whole world. So if you are British with your Games here watching the BBC, of course you want to see your athletes and your final type reactions and so forth.

    But I think in other parts of the world they also want to see the silver medalists. And by the way, a very respected tennis player [Roger Federer], who was leaving the field, the court and I think our producer rightly took the decision to show that. And, by the way, this producer is from the BBC.

    We have used the same producers that covered Wimbledon. I believe he made the right decision and our job is to present the athletes and their reactions when they win and when they lose. I think that’s what we did.

    There has been couple of glitches in other areas but, in spite of maybe what they said in the press, there were not glitches due to OBS willingness but they were due to other factors outside of our control, like certain data services, communications, etc., etc.

    ATR: The technological backbone behind OBS, does it work as you wanted it to? Any surprises? Any problems there?

    MR: What we call broadcast tele-communications, which is the backbone that we built either directly or through vendors that we get in order to organize the broadcast coverage, I think has gone really well. And this has included new services that we have really inaugurated in these Games that extend beyond London.

    In fact we have provided a worldwide coverage providing what we call the multi-channel distribution service, whereby we bring twelve channels to different parts of the world.
    Also commentary in English, in Spanish and in Arabic - this is the first time.

    And also with the pictures, we have embedded data that when you are at the receiving end you can decode through a laptop or a computer and you can get information there that allows the commentator to (do) remote commentary or you can go graphic and set graphics.

    So this is a new service that’s been very successful and  there have been more than 1300 receiving points around the world in South America, Africa and Asia. So the answer is yes, the broadcast network has worked very well.

    Romero first covered the 1968 Games in Mexico Ciy. (ATR/Panasonic Lumix)

    ATR: What does that mean? Does that mean fewer people coming to the Olympics to cover them?

    MR: No, they will always be there. The Olympics are a magnet. Part of what we have done here was due to the demand. Again, the IOC has been very successful in selling the rights. Practically I don’t think there is any part of the world where there is not a rights holder.

    Because of that there is a huge demand to come here and to operate here but we have had our capacity, both at the IBC and the venues, fully used and the number of accreditations has been set, it’s almost 20,000 broadcasters working.

    There is no room for more so we need to make it work by inventing new services that will allow them to receive and get done what they want to do without adding additional footprint to the Games.

    ATR: Can you go beyond 20,000?

    : No, because then the capacity of the venues will be strained to such a point that it will not work. I think we’ve reached the physical limit of what we have at the venues and the IBC. I think going beyond that it would be not right.

    That’s why we have to invent new services to let broadcasters still do their job without increasing the size of the Games.

    ATR: Now in what direction is Olympic broadcasting moving technology-wise? How will it be different, do you think, in the next few Games? What kind of changes are coming?

    : In production, we increased substantially the number of super high speed cameras that we use. That we started very experimentally in Beijing but now we use, I think, 50. They show a much better quality with lighting conditions than we find normally in the venues.

    They give angles and ideas of how the athletes perform that you could not see before. We have introduced new transmission systems that make sure that the quality of the picture is maintained around the world.

    We have introduced, as you know, 3D coverage for the first time in the Games. We have done a substantial number of hours, we have covered in 3D sports that were never, ever covered. Forget Olympics or non-Olympics, that were never covered before.

    I think we can say that we have explored all areas of technology that we can use. However, for the future, I think we need to go deeper and deeper in each of the areas that we cover: production-wise, distribution-wise, and so forth.

    I don’t think there will be revolutionary changes because I think we have already done the revolution when we went from analog to digital, when we went from standard definition to high definition, and now 3D.

    Kirani James's triumph captured by an OBS camera. (Getty Images)
    High definition is not now special, it’s standard. So it was high in Beijing, now it’s almost standard. So probably the next step is the experiment we are doing here in London with NHK and the BBC which is the super high vision and this probably will be something that is there at home maybe in 10, 12 years.

    ATR: In addition to the video, what about the sound, the audio? There’s been a really substantial change in quality, presentation of the sound that you hear.

    : That’s been one of our worries, to make sure that the progress is not only on the video side but also on the audio side. Nowadays many homes are better prepared to receive surround sound and to make you feel like you are there in the venue.

    So we have taken substantial steps to make sure that this improvement is there, and I think we have achieved quite a good level of sound quality.

    ATR: Does it require more microphones?

    : It requires more specialized equipment, more microphones, and it requires also a new way of operating. It requires very good sound engineers who are trained in getting surround sound. This was not available before Beijing, we trained many of them. We have organized seminars for the new technologies including surround audio and now we are happy to see that there are professionals who can cover this very well from an audio standpoint.

    ATR: Have the demands of broadcasters changed? Have their needs changed?

    : I think basically they are the same because, again, what they want is to have the best seat in the house for to see the sport. Basically what they are asking us is that we provide the best possible state of the art coverage and that we bring in our images that are the best the athletes have which we think we are trying to do.

    And then they want to have an organization that allows them to operate in the city, to do their interviews, that coverage, etc., etc. And I think this is basically the same story as 40 years ago.

    ATR: After more than 20 years as the head of host broadcasting for the Olympics and 11 years at OBS, ever since it started, you are retiring at the end of the year. How’s it feel?

    : Well, I will stay with OBS, I will be a member of the board. I will be vice chairman and the IOC has asked me to continue in that position and also maybe to provide some consulting services to the IOC, so I feel very proud that I will continue in that role. Of course, I will leave my executive assignment.

    (ATR/Panasonic Lumix)
    This was already a need after Beijing because, you know, it takes time to prepare an orderly succession and this is what we have been able to achieve. So this is an anticipated move that is going to take place at the end of this year.

    I will continue working, I think for me it would be very difficult to forget sports and television so I hope to be able to do other things that are not so demanding than the Olympic Games. But I hope to be seeing you around.

    ATR: And what will happen to OBS? Will OBS change? Do you think it’s going to be different under new CEO Yannis Exarchos?

    : Hopefully OBS will continue with its mission, which is to provide the best coverage of the Olympic Games and try ... you know, I’m not the only one leaving OBS although I will remain on the board.

    There are other OBS staff leaving because they reached the retirement age and there are several colleagues leaving after these Games but they will be replaced.

    There are already a whole succession plan is including new fresh blood that will invigorate what we do. So I think OBS has a great future ahead of it.

    ATR: What has it meant for the IOC and broadcasting of the Games to have an organization like OBS?

    : I was very lucky before OBS was started. As you know, I have been involved also in the Games since ’92 in that position of head of the whole broadcasting so I had a certain continuity. And before that I was involved in ’84 in LA, in a different capacity.

    But I think I can say with no hesitation that the fact that now OBS is known very well before the Games, the next Games, who they are, allows for a better planning, for more integrated planning, and more and more rights holders become long-term for four years or for eight years and that allows for a better communication.

    So the broadcasters know us and we know the broadcasters and that allows what I told you before: a better communication with them and the possibility to offer them better services.

    A 3D camera at the Aquatics Centre.(ATR/Panasonic Lumix)
    ATR: How is planning for Sochi?

    : We are almost finishing with the planning phase in Sochi. We are almost going to the post-planning and getting into the operational phase. Sochi’s only, what?

    ATR: Around 16, 17 months away.

    : 16, 17 months and for us. Normally we start with the IBC there a few months before. For us is more or less a year when we move to Sochi already with equipment and so forth. The planning is almost finished right now with Sochi.

    ATR: Are there any issues there? Any concerns that you have about Sochi because it’s a new place for the Games?

    : It’s a new place for Games like Rio is a new place for Games. But we are starting already in Rio, we are not such an advanced planning phase as we are with Sochi but we have already been discussing with Rio plans for more than a year now and I think obviously after we finish London we will, you know, go more to work with Rio.

    And at the same time we are planning the Nanjing Games and so we have a full plate in front of us. We are not complaining about lack of work.

    ATR: The 2014 Youth Olympics in Nanjing -- you do have to pay attention to the YOG?

    : We treat them very seriously. We did provide the coverage for Singapore which we believe was very good in terms of the response from the broadcasters and we look forward to Nanjing.

    Of course they will not have the same level of the Olympic Games but those Games I think will gain with the time, recognition and the number of hours that we will be broadcasting.

    ATR: Besides big screen, we’re talking these days about little screen, about people watching on mobile devices. How has the growth of this use of video changed the way you do things?

    : We have already started to think about this in Athens so since Athens we are providing already HDTV feeds which allow broadcasters to use it on internet, on the new media and on mobile.

    I think London is the first time there is a massive use by broadcasters of these facilities to be able to go over the air, on cable and internet and also telephone.

    That depends very much, of course, on how the different countries operate. There are countries where the mobile phone is very much advanced a normal thing. Other countries things are more difficult with cost and so forth.

    ATR: Do you think, at some point in the future, more people will watch on small screens versus the big screens?

    MR: No, I think the market will be very fragmented like they used to say ‘when you get internet the television will be finished’ and with the cable they said ‘oh the air will be finished’... no, all of them are living together and this depends on the age group.

    Of course, the older people will prefer traditional television, the younger people will go through internet or tablets and maybe even the younger ones will go with the phone.

    The technology is changing so quickly that you need to be ready for all age segments so the market will be segmented, not only with the different media, the different idea, but group ages.

    You have to not forget that in different areas of the world, some of these facilities will not be available or are not available. There are certain regions in Latin America or in Africa, that internet is simply not there. In others you don’t have the traditional telephone lines yet you find cellular phones. All of these count.

    Sometimes we tend to forget that not everywhere in the world is the same. I think what we would like to do is to be able to serve all different areas.

    Conducted in London by Ed Hula.

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