As the Rio 2016 games draw to an end, the Olympic Channel begins its life. Following its launch at the closing ceremony of the games, the channel will completely change how we consume television in the future. This new digital platform will operate 24/7 to fill the gap in between games with local, national, and international sporting events. The Olympic Channel is a world first in broadcast history, and may be the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) most strategic move for a decade.
As things stand, the Olympic movement is almost entirely financed by the exclusive sale of broadcast rights. About 74% of the IOC’s total income is derived from this source; the largest chunk of which comes from American broadcaster NBC. For years, critics have said that this leaves the Olympic Games very much in the pockets of television executives – so much so that events are reportedly rescheduled to suit television audiences, rather than athletes.
Yet we live now in a digital era, and television has changed dramatically since the IOC started these contractual arrangements in the 1980s. Today, television sits alongside social media, as more broadcasters produce content for platforms such as Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram.
Twitter is making deals to livestream full Olympic matches within its platform, and the IOC even has its own YouTube channel, which it has been using as an archive of Olympic footage since Beijing 2008. It recently started to upload full match episodes from previous games, which are gathering the lion’s share of the channel’s views.
With such developments proceeding apace, the future of television is uncertain; which makes NBC’s recent decision to pay an unprecedented amount for the US rights to the Olympics until 2032 a significant gamble. By this time, televisions will just be screens onto which we push content from our mobiles. The IOC knows that the days of the television as an operating system are over – and its new Olympic Channel reflects this.
Olympics every day?
It might seem odd to have an Olympic Channel when the games are not on, but in fact it could well offer users a service they didn’t know they needed: that is, a way of connecting with the athletes they care about, in between the games. The channel also wants to own the hyper-local sports experience, which is currently under-resourced by most international and national sports federations. It wants people to log in and follow their sport, and it wants local clubs to broadcast their events.
The channel will start off as a facility to fill the gap between the games. But it won’t make sense to ask followers to tune out once the Olympics begin simply to satisfy broadcasters who have paid to cover them. Instead, it’s likely that those broadcasters will use the platform, and become a big part of it going forward.
The channel also has third-party integration, to make the most of the mobile experience. You can follow Spotify playlists by your favourite athletes, so that you can train to the same music. You can share your data and track your progress using Samsung’s S Health application (Samsung is an Olympic partner). And you can play interactive games during sports events, so that you don’t switch off from the content and spread your attention elsewhere.
The long game
The IOC is playing the long game, and their initiative could become the Facebook of the sports world. Once the platform has a loyal following, the IOC will be able to monetise this in unimaginable ways – perhaps it could even renegotiate its relationship with television broadcasters and sell advertising directly. But it’s likely that some crucial deals will be struck before this situation arises.
For now, the channel will deliver exclusive, behind-the-scenes footage of the games, which will extend viewer interests well past the closing ceremony and into the next Olympic cycle. For a long time, the IOC has emphasised that it is not a content creator for the Olympic Games. But while the channel is not yet covering the games, the fact that it comes out of the Olympic Broadcasting Services (the organisation which shoots all the sport content at the Olympics) means that there will be increasing overlaps between the two.
The challenge will be to ensure that this adds value to the broadcast offer – rather than detracts from it – so that the IOC remains affluent. That said, if the Olympic Channel can run its own advertising and sponsor campaigns, then it can cut out the television middle-man and do exactly what social media does today.
For a century, the Olympic Games have been a litmus test for media change, with slow motion replay, 3D television and virtual reality all being pioneered at the games. This year, organisers have boasted about how Rio 2016 is the first games to be consumed on mobile first and televisions second. Looking at the state of the media today – where companies like CNN are showing a median viewer age of 61 – it’s hard to see much future for television, as we presently know it. But one thing’s for sure – you’ll still be able to watch the Olympics.