How The BBC Is Building The First Social Olympic Games

The BBC’s ambitious Olympics strategy incorporates multiple broadcast and online channels, and large-scale social and data integration. But the broadcaster sees the games as just the proving ground for a broader digital strategy.

How The BBC Is Building The First Social Olympic Games

Comprehensive, social, interactive, personal–the BBC is promising all this and more for coverage of what it says will be “the first truly digital Olympic Games” when London 2012 opens on July 27. As important, however, will be the digital and social legacy the network hopes to create.


“The game changer will be our live event Olympic experience,” predicts Phil Fearnley, General Manager, BBC News & Knowledge, who oversees product development for the BBC’s online products. “The scale of what we’ve been putting in place here is, quite literally, awesome.”

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At the core of the BBC’s Olympic Games output during the 17-day event will be linear broadcast coverage on flagship TV channel BBC 1 with additional programming across BBC 2 and BBC 3 plus national radio services BBC Radio 5 Live and Radio 5 Live Extra.

However, a host of other digital platforms will also used to extend and deepen both the BBC coverage and U.K. viewers’ games experience. “It’s not standalone, just for London 2012, but part of a wider context we refer to as our ‘one, ten, four’ strategy,” Fearnley explains.

“One, ten, four” was introduced in early 2011 to simplify and bring greater discipline to the BBC’s online strategy which, in preceding years, had seen the organization develop 400 different web sites. Its aim was to deliver “connected storytelling” through the delivery of one service (the BBC) with ten products (including TV, News, Weather and Sport) across four screens–mobile, tablets, PCs and connected TVs.

Fearnley adds: “Rich video across as many platforms as possible using as many different devices as possible will ensure the audience never miss a minute of the Games.”

So in addition to broadcast output on its own TV channels, the BBC will provide an additional 24 new HD-quality dedicated channels on cable and satellite–rowing on one channel, for example, judo on another. This same content will be streamed on the BBC Sport web site as well as elsewhere online via Facebook and via apps for mobile, tablets and smart TVs and game consoles.


New interactive tools have been developed to enhance the viewing experience–such as a live rewind function for streamed coverage on BBC Sport. There will also be Olympics live alerts so viewers watching one stream won’t miss exciting events breaking live on another. Meanwhile the BBC’s Olympics Facebook app (accessibly only in the U.K.) will enable social TV viewing.

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“Being on Facebook is important as some online audiences don’t come to,” Fearnley explains. While the BBC Sport site receives 20m streaming requests each month, Facebook has more than 30m monthly active users in the U.K. But the deal is not just about extending reach.

“Users will be able to watch events with friends also online, ‘chatting’ with them as the action unfolds,” he adds. “Comment threads under each stream will also allow Facebook users an opportunity to take the pulse of reaction from the Facebook community in real time.”

Press Play on a stream or Like and this will be shared with a user’s Facebook friends via the site’s news feed. The in-app activity stream will also update in real time to show Facebook users what their friends are watching. “Because of the scale of it, this will be an important test of social viewing and how it works,” Fearnley predicts.

Twitter will also be used to socialize the Olympic viewing experience as part of what is, perhaps, the most striking aspect of the BBC’s digital coverage–groundbreaking integration of in-depth data, social and personalization features the networks hope will set a new digital standard and a lasting legacy for the BBC online.

Earlier this year, the BBC Sport website was re-launched to pave the way for this with the introduction of enhanced navigation and technical features, such as a new digital dashboard which enables viewers build their own schedule of live and recorded events.


“We built a back end data services platform that allows us to build real time sports pages on the fly. In addition to the live streams, there will be an individual page for each of the 26 sports and 32 venues as well as every athlete and country,” says Fearnley.

That’s between 15,000 and 20,000 pages, all of which will be automatically generated based on the data coming in. Automation will be especially useful for compiling the athletes’ profiles as the BBC won’t know the identities of many overseas competitors until they sign into the Olympic Village two days ahead of the event’s opening ceremony.

Live updates and comments from social media including Twitter will be automatically integrated into these pages and users will also be able to access additional information such as video and text guides to each sport, or activity finders with local details of where they can try out a particular sport themselves.

“The site is intended to be both comprehensive and instinctive to use, so navigation has been an important focus,” he explains. “Users will also be able to personalize the site so they can shortlist those athletes, events or countries they want to following. Only the site’s main pages will be editorially curated.”

The BBC is refusing to comment on the value of its London 2012 investment. Nor will it reveal its U.K. audience target. However what it will say is that its pledge to deliver 2,500 hours of London 2012 sports coverage is 1,000 hours more than it delivered from the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, which achieved a reach of just over 40m of the U.K. population.

“The key challenge was convincing the organization of the scale of our ambitions and that they were achievable on a reasonable budget,” Fearnley admits. “But with what we’ve achieved so far we are confident that we’ve effectively used the infrastructure already there and built a digital legacy that will be used again in the future.”

About the author

Meg Carter is a UK-based freelance journalist who has written widely on all aspects of branding, media, marketing & creativity for a wide range of outlets including The Independent, Financial Times and Guardian newspapers, New Media Age and Wired.