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Olympics On All Platforms

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John O' Donovan | 20:47 UK time, Friday, 22 August 2008

You may have noticed over the last few weeks that the Olympics has invaded our screens, websites, phones and life as never before.

The access to information and content has been unprecedented, and I thought you might be interested in some of the areas where we used some Olympics special sauce.

First, some (estimated) numbers to give a rough sense of scale. (NB: these figures are UK-only because the relevant media are just UK-available.)

I talked earlier in the year about the launch of embedded video and how this has provided a better platform for our media on the web. This has really come into perspective with the Beijing Olympics.


In Athens, we served about 2.5m video plays for the entire event. For the Beijing Olympics so far, we have served nearly 40m sport video streams via the web - and the games are not over yet, with a few big events still to come.

We have at times been serving nearly 200,000 concurrent streams including live video and video on-demand. Individual clips have regularly reached over 500,000. Over 6.5m hours of Olympics watched so far. Up to 5.5m Olympics videos watched each day, averaging just under 3m.

And this is just on the Sport site on the web - not to mention BBC iPlayer, interactive TV and mobile platforms. Look out for updates with consolidated details after the games have finished.

Olympics? You love it.

What factors have created such a huge step forward in demand? You may have noticed that Team GB is third in the Olympics medal table. We've double checked the calculations, and this isn't an error or a cunning conspiracy by sporting pundits. So Team GB has been magnificent and many of you have clicked to watch them run off with the GB haul of medals. (Technically speaking, they have in fact have swam, cycled, sailed or rowed away with most of them, but let's not split hairs.)

Certainly, the internet has grown up to support this level of use. Broadband is getting better. The easy accessibility of the embedded player is playing its part. And the time of day has meant that many of you may not have access to a TV and that the web is the only route - but then perhaps the on-demand nature means you prefer the web anyway?

There are no doubt other reasons as well - let me know what you think.

Our services around the Olympics have also seen some interesting developments.


First, the live video streams have been hugely popular and we have been using them extensively across the site including a multiscreen player showing all the streams available in one place. This is an extension of the Embedded Media Player that allows you to choose which live stream the player is connected to and which redirects to this stream without a page refresh.

We have up to seven of these running at a time, based on the available streams of content. Sometimes they are live streams delivered from China; sometimes they are loops of key events or summaries. The video streams are encoded in real time to Flash On 2 VP6 video format by Viewcast Powerstream Pro cards Viewcast's Niagara Pro Encoders at 368Kbps which gives the best compromise for audience reach, delivery reliability, bandwidth usage and quality.


Concurrently, the editorial teams have been picking about 10-20hrs of content for BBC iPlayer each day which are sent as discreet files and encoded at a slightly higher quality (about 500Kbps). These are unusual because this is the first time we have put "off schedule" content into iPlayer - meaning content which is not in the schedule of the traditional linear TV channels (BBC ONE, BBC TWO, etc). These then link up with additional metadata added to the programme and channel information used in iPlayer so that these "off schedule" programmes are linked to programme information in iPlayer. There will be more of this to come over time as we look at which content best supplements the core TV schedule content we have in iPlayer.


Following the chain further back, you can see that we have an extensive guide to what is on the various channels and services. The coverage of events using multiple streams of video is more extensive than we have ever done before and to make this more finadable we have added more information to the TV schedules and Electronic Programme Guides to provide as much information about individual events.

Previously, you would often just see large blocks in the EPG showing "Olympics". Now you can see much more about the individual events. These data are what also drives the information showing what is on in the live streams (you can see an example feed here).

In the longer term, we hope to be able to publish much more accurate running order information and to segment our programme content in News and Sport so that individual sections of programmes can be identified.


Programme pages are available for each sport from the drop down at the top of the EPG page. These show listings of events for events by Sport and allow you to click through to the video. Where available, you can follow these links through to the Olympics content in BBC iPlayer and the astute will notice the use of the same IDs for the media (the "b00cs7sv/" part at the end of both addresses).

There is a red button sports portal on four platforms (Freesat, Freeview, DSat and DCable) all showing a choice of live action, recorded highlights and integrated text updates. Again, these are benefiting from the improved programme information available, but they are delivered through separate infrastructure dedicated to these platforms. They are using the same streams as available on the web, but they don't all have all seven streams.


On the Olympics live action page, underneath the multiscreen player, you will see the Live Text update. This allows journalists to provide a running commentary on the events occurring all around the Olympics while you are watching any one particular video stream. It's hugely addictive, largely down to the entertaining commentary and comments from the audience.

The key change on this feature is that the text updates without needing a page refresh. We have had a hugely positive response on this. It works by polling updates which are added to a JSON file and then placed in an animation queue which adds them to the page. It avoids the issue of how to deal with page refresh when the video is playing on the same page as well.


The map [click here] has been an interesting experiment using Microsoft Virtual Earth. Interesting, not only because we have been putting updates and blog posts on to it, but also because we have overlayed relevant venue information and enhanced rollovers.

Customising the maps has helped identify how we can manipulate maps more effectively and present a less generic face. There is some more detail on how this was done here and a blog post on how it was built here.

install_monkey130.pngMonkey has been out and about in the form of our Adobe AIR-based desktop application and, to be honest, he's been a bit naughty.

We washed his mouth out with soap and water and he has behaved since and been downloaded by over 50,000 of you. Final numbers to be confirmed. If you are interested in why we are using AIR, you can see the start of our strategy here.

Mobile has been a challenge to get working but on those networks where we are able to stream, there has been mobile video available in both live and on-demand forms. Yep: you can watch video on your mobile showing a live stream over 3g and it works, as long as you stand in the right place. It looks pretty good too.

twitter_topics.pngThere is more, such as blogs, podcasting, the Flickr pool, Twitter updates, the Denise Lewis Heptathlon, HD TV, Big Screens coverage around the UK, a China 08 topic page...

I'll stop there, but if you want more detail on the specifics of some of these products, then let me know and enjoy the last few days of coverage.

John O'Donovan is Chief Technical Architect, BBC FM&T Journalism


  • Comment number 1.

    Living in America, I am intensely envious of the BBC's enormous breadth of coverage, especially since much of it is, unfortunately, unavailable to viewers in the U.S. Nonetheless, the BBC's online site is the best source for news and analysis anywhere in the world, and it has been very impressive to see how you have handled covering a large event like the Olympics alongside the developing situation in Georgia.

  • Comment number 2.

    Well done you all, absolutely fantastic coverage. The website videos and website`s live text commentary (plus ability to watch different event streams) has completely changed how I keep up with Olympic coverage, particularly given the time differences. It`s meant I was able to catch up in early mornings or late evenings whilst having the live text running on a screen at work during key events. I completely abandoned TV`s fixed schedule coverage in favour of the website. Being able to browse different sports also introduced me to some events I normally wouldn`t watch. The Olympic section is so good I forgot about iPlayer other than for watching a repeat of the opening ceremony. (My only gripe is that the opening ceremony on iP is highlights, not the whole event.) I hope the entire section is going to remain accessible for a while afterwards as I still have some catching up to do.

  • Comment number 3.

    I'd like to congratulate the BBC on it's brilliant coverage of the Beijing 2008 Olympics on all media formats. I often stayed up all night watching the live action on BBC1 or whenever I got a chance at work (luckily only part time) i'd sneak off and follow the action on the BBC Olympic website on my mobile.

    So I raise a glass of champagne to you BBC and to China for a superb Olympics!!

  • Comment number 4.

    I'm curious about the effect this increase in multimedia content is having on the numbers of people using the BBC website from abroad.

    Whilst the quality of the content available from abroad is still excellent, having the message "Sorry, this media is not available in your territory" constantly on display could give users abroad the impression of being 'second-class' users and drive them away to other news services.

  • Comment number 5.

    All the BBC need to do now is find out how 3G modems, such as those by 3, Vodafone, T-Mobile et al (also available from other operators) can not be in the UK when they are and we'll be sorted. I can't even see the footage of the homecoming as it isn't in my territory - erm, I didn't know the IOC restricted the rights to this as well?

  • Comment number 6.


    Hi - you will find our news content is generally available worldwide, but the rights for sport and other types of content are often restricted to the UK. We are looking at ways of providing suitable alternative content or funding but we are unable to distribute certain content worldwide for free.


    Hi Klbrock. This has been one of the challenges with distributing video over mobile - identifying which territory users are located in, especially when roaming. Restrictions on using 3G modems will be less tight after the olympics and we are working with the operators to find a way to identify more accurately where users are located.

  • Comment number 7.

    jacksonkelsie, SheffTim and Iron_Jack thanks for your positive comments on the coverage. Will have an update on usage hopefully by the end of the week.


    John O'Donovan

  • Comment number 8.

    Out of interest have there been comparisons of viewer patterns against the usual broadcast service?

  • Comment number 9.

    I wish to congratulate the BBC on their mobile coverage of the Olympics.

    I streamed many hours of live coverage to my trusty N95 via my operator and via Wi-Fi when available, and the picture quality for me was outstanding. I'd personally say it was the best example of mobile TV yet.

    So, is this a sign of things to come? Does the Beeb have any plans to multicast their channels onto the mobile platform?

  • Comment number 10.


    There have been comparisons but don't have the full summary yet. Over 40 Million, roughly 70% of the population, watched some olympics coverage so there was certainly no drop off in engagement with broadcast services.


    We have plans for more video content on mobile and also improving and changing the way we publish the mobile site so that video becomes more integrated into the content pages (at the moment you usually get sent to a video index, with a list of videos on).

    We are looking at multicast as well, but there are cost and quality issues for the end user because of the cost of data transferred to phones. If you watch a lot of video you can get a big bill, "Bill Shock" as it commonly referred to.

    For Olympics content we arranged for these costs to be capped, but a more long term approach is required and we need to work out an approach which makes sense for the mobile operators as well. Some of the operators also have technical restrictions we need to work through.

    We want to get the model and timing right for launching such a service.

  • Comment number 11.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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