Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Broadcasting the London Olympic Games in 1948

In honor of the 2012 London Olympics and all those behind-the-scenes stories about the preparations required to properly cover the Games on TV and the web, we present this humble essay, called Broadcasting the Olympic Games.

It was written by one "L. Hotine" of the BBC, and was originally published in the 1949 BBC YEAR BOOK (pictured at left).

"The XIV Olympiad, the second Olympiad to be held in Britain (the first was in 1908), presented a planning and operational problem which had never before been encountered in the history of any broadcasting organization in the world. The BBC through the years has dealt with broadcasts of increasing magnitude and, prior to the Olympic Games, the Royal Wedding in November, 1947, created the heaviest load on its resources. It was known, when the decision was taken to hold the XIV Olympiad in Britain, that broadcasting reporting and eye-witness accounts of the Games would surpass in complexity and magnitude even the broadcasts of the Royal Wedding, because, although the latter had international interest, the Olympic Games in detail would have to be reported in practically every country in the world in each country’s own language and in most cases by commentators who were covering their own athletes participating in the Games.

The Engineering Division were faced with two major difficulties in planning: first, accommodation for a broadcasting centre, and secondly, accurate knowledge of the amount of facilities all nations would require. As the first problem could not be solved without resolution of the second, it was necessary to make certain assumptions and to err on the side of greater demands so that preliminary planning could begin.

The first requirement was a building near the Wembley Stadium, and it was at one time thought that a special building would have to be erected. Apart from the expense of construction, it was known that severe difficulties would be encountered in obtaining building materials and building labour. It was, therefore, a considerable easement when Sir Arthur Elvin, the Managing Director of Wembley Stadium, Ltd., generously offered to lend to the BBC the old building which was the Palace of Arts in the British Empire Exhibition of 1924. This building had been used in the intervening years for a number of purposes and the internal arrangements were of little us, as they stood, for broadcasting purposes. The building did provide four walls, however, and a roof and ample area in which to partition off spaces for studios, recording and reproducing rooms, etc. Preliminary planning of the area was then possible, and meanwhile replies to a questionnaire which had been sent to the broadcasting organizations of the participating countries were beginning to come in.

Analysis of the requirements showed that it would be necessary to provide for thirty-two channels; that is, equipment to permit thirty-two separate broadcasts to take place at any one time. This equipment, amplifiers, mixers, line terminations, etc., would be installed in the central control room in the Palace of Arts, to be known as the Broadcasting Centre. Space and other considerations determined the number of microphone positions which would feed the central control room for distribution to the BBC’s Home and Overseas Services and to the participating countries of the world. At Wembley Stadium fifteen commentary boxes were planned, together with seventeen open positions. The Empire Pool would have sixteen commentary positions. Because of the distance between the central control room, the Stadium, and the Empire Pool, it was necessary to plan for sub-control rooms in each of these buildings in order to raise the programme volume from each microphone. No switching would be done at these points.

Eight studios would be required in the Wembley Broadcasting Centre, together with twenty recording channels and eight reproducing rooms. The need for these facilities, in addition to the commentary points, was created because many of the eye-witness accounts of events would be either broadcast live or recorded for later transmission because of time differences in different parts of the world.

Planning of the Broadcasting Centre was now completed, and constructional work began in January, 1948. All equipment had been installed by the end of June, and exhaustive tests were carried out in the few weeks which remained before the Games were opened by H.M. the King [George VI].

Other technical accommodation provided in the Broadcasting Centre consisted of television control and production rooms, and television cameras were installed in the Stadium and Empire Pool. A co-axial cable for television had been installed by the GPO during the early part of the year between Wembley and Broadcasting House. This cable is terminated in the Stadium and remains as a permanent installation for future television broadcasts.

Non-technical accommodation consisted of correspondents’ room, editing rooms and record library, restaurant, information room, and, of great importance, the bookings room. The bookings room, controlled jointly by engineers and a section of the normal Studio-Management Unit, dealt with all applications for studios, recording rooms, commentary positions, outgoing circuits, and all reservations for lines or radio channels abroad controlled by the GPO [General Post Office].

Apart from the events at Wembley, there were many other venues: Henley, Torquay, Bisley, Aldershot, etc. All these venues were treated as normal outside broadcasts, although, because of the number of simultaneous commentaries from each place, much more equipment and many more circuits back to the Broadcasting Centre were necessary than for an outside broadcast for BBC transmission only. Twelve mobile recording cars and one vehicle containing eight magnetic recorders were available for the events at venues other than Wembley. At Broadcasting House a special control point was built, to handle all the commentaries sent by line from Wembley and the other venues and to pass them on to the Post Office trunk exchange and radio terminal for transmission by line and radio to the foreign countries.

The photograph opposite page 56 shows the control positions which were installed round three sides of the Central Control room. The positions were arranged in banks of three bays, the middle bay being a reserve for those on each side. Each bay was equipped with an amplifier and a four-channel mixer, but the outer bays were able to use two of the mixer channels of the centre bay. Thus each control position had in effect a six-channel mixer which provide six alternative input sources. In the event of a failure, three bays became two, each with a four-channel selection. This arrangement was designed to economize in equipment, but still provide sufficient reserves. Each control position was provided with ten tie-lines to the main source-selection bay, so that a maximum of ten sources of programme were under the hand of the operator. In the middle of the room were the bays accommodating the source selection terminations, outgoing and incoming line terminations, line-testing equipment, and the switching arrangements for all the cue and signal-light circuits to all the microphone positions.

Of special interest were the television arrangements, which were more complicated than for any other television outside broadcast previously attempted. Only one week before the start of the Games the BBC had taken delivery of a new television O.B. [Outside Broadcast] unit designed and manufactured by Electrical and Musical Industries, Ltd. [EMI], and the cameras associated with this unit were installed at the Empire Pool. The cameras used a new design of pick-up tube which had only been used experimentally in prototype form on the two previous broadcasts, one of which was the Royal Wedding. Much development work, however, had been done in the intervening period and the pictures obtained of the swimming and other water events exceeded the hopes of the designers and the BBC engineers. The control equipment for these cameras was located in a vehicle parked outside the building and connected by co-axial cable to the vision control room in the Broadcasting Centre.

The older television cameras were used in the Stadium, as they require much more light for satisfactory operation. Their control equipment vehicle was located in the Stadium tunnel and was also connected to the vision control room by co-axial cable routed via the Empire Pool control point. The vision control room was equipped with a vision mixer which could be faded from point to point at the direction of the producer who sat in a small production room adjacent to the control room. The producer had three monitors in front of him, which showed the actual picture as broadcast and previews of the pictures from the Stadium and the Empire Pool.

That the XIV Olympiad, 1948, represented the most ambitious undertaking in broadcasting history there can be no doubt; 200 engineers were engaged; there were twenty-five venues, 130 commentary positions, and 500 amplifiers and 150 microphones were installed. The project took twelve months to plan, building and installation work took six months and three months were required to dismantle and return to normal."