The history of broadcasting in the Olympic Games really begins with the 1936 Olympic Summer Games in Berlin. While there were limited radio broadcasts of the Olympic Games in Amsterdam (1928) and Los Angeles (1932), Berlin (1936) made broadcasting history.
The 1936 Olympic Games were televised by two German firms, Telefunken and Fernseh and marked the first live television coverage of a sports event in world history with a total of 138 viewing hours. Using three electronic cameras and 24 movie cameras, 162,000 viewers watched the competition in special viewing booths, called "Public Television Offices" in Berlin and Potsdam. In addition to the introduction of television, the 1936 Games received extensive radio coverage, as a total of 2500 radio broadcasts were made in 28 different languages.
With the advent of new technologies and the overall growth of the Games, the Olympic broadcasting soon grew in complexity and breadth. The post-World War II broadcasts slowly began expanding coverage offerings, starting with the 1948 London Games when select events were covered by multiple cameras (three-four) for the first time.
During this time, the Olympic broadcast was provided by the domestic broadcaster within the host country who served as the “host broadcaster” of the Games, although the term would not be commonly used until several years later. More than 500,000 viewers, most residing within a 50-mile radius of London, watched the 64 hours of Olympic programming.
The maturation of Olympic television went through period of stagnation for a short time in the 1950s. In 1952, the Helsinki Games were not televised as radio remained the major medium of the day. Four years later in Melbourne, the Organizing Committee asked the international broadcast community to pay rights fee for access to the television feed. EBU (Europe) and all three North America broadcasters (NBC, ABC, CBS) broadcasters refused to pay and as a result, the Games were only televised in Australia.
While the audience for the 1956 Olympic Summer Games was limited, the preceding Olympic Winter Games provided a glimpse of the future escalation of the Olympic Games’ broadcasts. In the Olympic Winter Games of 1956 (Cortina d’ Ampezzo), Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI) supplied the Olympic Games footage to countries in Western Europe via the EBU land line (Eurovision), marking the first ever Olympic Games in which television pictures were relayed to viewers outside the host country. The opportunity presented itself because the EBU had already set up a joint production system, televising regional sports programs by creating Eurovision in 1953 which linked member organizations and created pool operations.
The audience of the Olympic Games began its steady ascension with the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. RAI was again responsible for the production with 18 European countries receiving the live broadcast feed and 21 countries overall receiving the feed provided by RAI. And after the challenges in Melbourne, the 1960 Games marked the first Games at which the broadcasters paid the Olympic Organizing Committee a fee for the broadcast rights to the Game, $1.200.000 in total was collected by the Organizing Committee.
Four years later, television pictures were broadcast via satellite for the first time with NHK providing the globe with the pictures and sound of the 1964 Tokyo Games. The pictures were taken live in Tokyo and could be seen simultaneously via the Syncom III satellite in more than 20 U.S. states and Canada. In addition, countries throughout Europe watched the Games through Mondovision. In total, 40 countries tuned into the Tokyo Games and paid $1.6 million for the rights.
Significant international partnership marked the 1968 Olympic Games. Telesistema Mexicano – the precursor of Televisa and domestic rights holder – provided the international signal in collaboration with multiple international broadcast organizations. Telesistema created a pool with ABC, NHK, CBC and the EBU, all which sent personnel, production equipment and mobile units to facilitate proper coverage of the Games, which were broadcast live in color for the first time. In addition, the broadcasters independently produced pooled images that were exchanged.
While the viewership was peaking in 1968 with the Olympic Games establishing its first multi million audience, with 600 million viewers, the international signal provided by the domestic broadcaster remained relatively constant and unaltered. All international broadcasters were supplied with the international signal, however, they were provided with limited opportunities to enhance or personalize the international signal for their own home audiences.
In 1972, the Host Broadcast production system began to take shape. For the first time the international signal was created for global distribution and was separate and clearly distinct from the domestic broadcast. The German broadcasters ARD and ZDF created a separate team to produce the international signal with assistance from mobile units provided by the British (BBC), the Dutch (NOS), the Austrians (ORF), the Italians (RAI) and the Swiss (SBC). The team created a production plan separate from the domestic service which incorporated elements from the domestic international signal mixed with pictures taken from its own cameras. The approach was similar to the unilateral signal production method employed today.
Twelve years later in 1984 in Los Angeles, the Host Broadcast operation as it is recognized today was introduced. ABC, the U.S. domestic rights holder, served as the host broadcaster and provided the international signal. Television and radio rights were acquired by 156 nations. However, unlike previous Games, the international signal could also be supplemented by broadcasters’ independently produced unilateral signals. Broadcasters could mix the international signal with footage supplied by their own unilateral cameras. As a result, the broadcasters were more intimate, personal and focused around the athletes from the broadcasters’ respective home countries.
The evolution of the Host Broadcast operation continued, but always with the domestic Rights Holding Broadcaster playing some role in the creation of the international signal. An amendment to the IOC Media Guide, changed all of this. The amendment stipulated that the Host Broadcaster did not need to come from the home country. This allowed for the creation of a separate team of international broadcast professionals with the sole task of producing the Host Broadcast signal for the Games.
Under the new guidelines, Radio Television Olimpica (RTO ’92) was formed in 1992. RTO ’92 became the first Host Broadcaster to be part of the Olympic Organizing Committee and not be part of the domestic rights holder or a consortium of international broadcaster entities. The trend toward structuring the Host Broadcaster as part of the Organizing Committee continued until the new millennium
.For the first time in Olympic broadcast history, a multi-tier television structure was operated in several countries. RTO ’92 sub-licensed coverage of additional events to other cable and satellite broadcasters, expanding the total sports coverage.
In 1994 Lillehammer, broadcast and marketing programmes generated more than US$500 million, breaking almost every major Olympic Winter Games marketing record. More than 120 countries and territories viewed television coverage of the Games. For the first time, the Winter Games were broadcast on the African continent, via M-Net and ART satellites.
The IOC’s philosophy changed for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City. Rather than establishing the Host Broadcaster as part of the Organizing Committee, the IOC launched an international tender process seeking a firm or consortium of firms to serve as the Host Broadcaster of the 2002 Games.
After an extensive bidding process, International Sports Broadcasting (ISB), a small private organization, was chosen to serve as the 2002 Host Broadcaster. The ISB team consisted of various broadcast professionals in possession of considerable experience working not only for the Host Broadcaster, but also with the international broadcast organizations who were awarded the rights to broadcast the Games in their respective countries.
Separate outside bids were also required for the 2004 Games and again ISB was awarded the contract. ISB then partnered with the Athens Organizing Committee to form Athens Olympic Broadcasting (AOB), the Host Broadcaster for the 2004 Games. The evolution of the Host Broadcast operation was nearly complete.
In 2001, the IOC announced a change that would lead to a more consistent, organized approach with the establishment of a permanent Host Broadcaster for the Olympic Games. The Host Broadcaster operations would be performed by a private company funded by and under the direct supervision of the IOC. Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) was officially established in May 2001.
OBS eliminated the need to continually rebuild the Host Broadcast operation after each Games (new people, equipment). From Games to Games, the foundation would remain constant and it would be based on a methodology proven and tested from previous Games. A more efficient, streamlined and uniform Host Broadcast operation could be achieved.
The OBS obligations have commenced with the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. An agreement was signed by OBS and the Organising Committee for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games (BOCOG) to establish Beijing Olympic Broadcasting Co. Ltd (BOB) as the Host Broadcaster for the 2008 Games. BOB would be responsible for the day-to-day operations in Beijing while under the management of OBS.
For the Vancouver and London operations, OBS will manage the project from Madrid while eventually creating an on-site branch of the organization responsible for the day-to-day functions of the Host Broadcast. In Vancouver, this branch has already been established and has been officially dubbed OBS Vancouver Ltd.