Broadcasting the Olympic Games 

22 August 2016

From the BBC Year Book for 1949, published in late 1948.

olympics48 5The 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 use, 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.

The central control room in the Broadcasting Centre, Wembley

The central control room in the Broadcasting Centre, Wembley

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.

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.

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 provided six alternative input sources. In the event of failure, three bays became two, each with 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.

Modern Olympic flag. Photograph by Scazon on Flickr - CC-BY 2.0

Modern Olympic flag. Photograph by Scazon on Flickr – CC-BY 2.0

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. unit designed and manufactured by Electrical and Musical Industries, Ltd., 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 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 pictures from the Stadium and 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.

Leslie Hotine (1900-1980) served as wireless operator in the Royal Navy in World War I and joined the original British Broadcasting Company in 1923 as a transmitter engineer. He was later Superintendent Engineer, Transmitters, then Senior Superintendent Engineer – the highest post on his career path – at the BBC in 1940s.

You Say

4 responses to this article

Paul Mason 23 August 2016 at 3:10 am

The 1948 Games were before my time, my earliest memory was of the 1968 Mexico Games, although I remember the theme from the 1964 Games in Tokyo. to where they will return in 2020. I don’t think the 1952 (,Helsinki) 1956 (Melbourne) or the 1960 Rome. Games could be broadcast live as these pre dated Telstar. I do know both BBC and ITV covered the 1968 Games, but I’m not sure about after, I know Channel 4 covered the 1988 Games in Seoul, but after that just the BBC did them (terrestrially). I do remember David Coleman’s commentary of the terrorist incident about the kidnap and murder of the Israeli athletes in Munich in 1972. Sorry not much about 1948, other than the fact that the TV audience for that years games would have been tiny and limited to the Home Counties. Pathe and Movietone newsreels would have filmed the Olympics but these would only be seen in cinemas a day or so after the event.

garry 23 August 2016 at 10:00 pm

The B.B.C. has covered T.V. and Radio] every Summer and Winter Olympic Games since 1960. I.T.V. covered 1968 [Mexico] 1972 [Munich] 1980 [Moscow] and 1988 [Seoul] I.T.V. were meant to broadcast the 1984 Los-Angeles Games in Conjunction with Channel Four but an Industrial Dispute with [The Late] Alan sapper Head of the A.C.T.T. Union on whether two or three men [and they were mostly men] in those days as to handle the new Electronic News Gathering Units [E.N.G] for short meant that I.T.V. and Channel Four management pulled out of 1984 I.T.V. then got double the viewing figures for The American Sci-Fi series V. which was watched by 2 .4 million viewers at 2am in the morning in 1984,leading to I.T.V. starting a phased 24 hour Regional service from Region to Region in 1985.The next four Olympic Games 2018-2022] are on Eurosport [All of it] two free screens National State Broadcasters across Europe. No Red Button Service. The 12 Discovery Networks[ channels Which now own Eurosport and Olympic coverage and European T.V. Rights until 2024] could be replaced for Tokyo 2020 [On digital Satellite only] and where ever the 2024 Olympic Games are. for better coverage. Rather like the B.B.C for their last four Olympic Games In memory of my late and lovely Mum from her former 51 year old Disabled Carer.GOD BLESS!

Kif Bowden-Smith 27 August 2016 at 2:03 am

I would point out, Paul, that satellites were not a requirement if the games were within suitable distance of international cable runs for the signals to be boosted en route – so the 1960 Rome games for example were carried live throughout Europe on the Eurovision network. It is true that American TV had to wait longer for air flown recordings of the bulk of it – no satellite as you say – but limited excerpts were sent by cable. It could not be used full time though, as it tied up cables intended for telephony – which The Post Office would not allow – so only news clips went that way and the pictures were not the best. But European viewers certainly had good pictures distributed live by the EBU in 1960.

Square Eyes 27 August 2016 at 3:45 pm

The (then) new Eurovision network allowed the BBC to televise the 1954 football World Cup in Switzerland and the 1956 Winter Olympics in Italy. The 1956 Summer Olympics in Australia were beyond reach because there was no satellite link but film was flown back and screened two days later.

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