Television broadcasting, on a regular basis, is barely seventy years old, depending on where you live. The Olympic games, however, predate anyone living today. Indeed, the games predate many of today’s technologies. Broadcasting those games, however, is a relatively recent thing. The games were regularly broadcast beginning in 1960, at least, here in the United States. The CBS network paid for the privilege of bringing the games to the population of the United States. Other networks in other parts of the world did, however, bring the games to their own countries.
The Olympic Committee began offering up the broadcast rights in the 1950’s. The American networks, however, did not warm up to the notion of actually paying for the games until the 1960 games. The notion of charging for the rights to carry the games began with the first post World War II games: the 1948 Olympiad. The BBC paid the equivalent of three thousand dollars to broadcast the games around London. Approximately a half million people watched nearly sixty-four hours of programming. Just twelve years later, CBS would pay fifty-thousand dollars to broadcast just fifteen hours of programming. I think the BBC got the better deal. An interesting side note: legend has it that the three-thousand dollar check the BBC paid was never cashed, but it did establish the idea of broadcast rights fees. Every Olympiad since has cost networks enormous sums of money, both in fees and personnel/equipment cost. In fact, the only games that have been broadcast on television that did not involve a rights fee were the 1936 games in Berlin. 1936? What? The 1936 Berlin games were broadcast to about 25 parlors in and around Berlin and an estimated 128 thousand people viewed the broadcasts. It is interesting to note, however, that those broadcasts were considered a flop. I have not found much information on why this was the case, but, at least one magazine in the day wrote about it. Click here to view the article. It is presumed that the technical challenges are why the broadcasts were considered a flop. The pickups in the cameras needed a lot of light. The cameras were huge, too. Only one of the three cameras available could actually be used live. The picture quality was probably not very good and, since they were projected, suffered quite a bit because of the low resolution. Nonetheless, I’d say it was a remarkable achievement, given the time.
Olympic broadcasts are a showcase, not only for the host nation, but for the networks who cover them. Many firsts took place because of the Olympics. Sadly, some of them were tragic, such as the 1972 Munich games in which 11 athletes perished during a hostage situation. ABC television, in the United States, was covering the games then.
Some of the more notable firsts, for television or Olympic coverage, include Stereo broadcasting in the 1984 LA Games, coverage via satellite for the 1964 Tokyo games, color coverage occurred in 1968 and high-definition coverage began with the spectacular 2008 opening ceremony.
In 1996, another huge achievement for Olympic coverage took place: the internet. IBM coordinated the web presence for the Olympic Committee. IBM developed the data tracking and the web site. Unfortunately, it did not go as smooth as IBM had hoped and, as a result, they became the butt of many jokes during the games. It was, however, a start.
By the 2004 games, the Internet was commonplace. Web sites ran much more smoothly and the Olympic sites just got better and better. On line video also became standard. Highlights were freely available and one could also pay a fee and see certain events live.
Olympic coverage has come a very long way since those first grainy, flickering images of the 1936 games. One can only guess as to what the games of the future might be like. Three dimensional, holographic images might be the norm. Certainly, one will be able to watch them regardless of location. Many suggest that by the 2014 games, you’ll be able to watch them on your cell phone in clear, hi-def video. Imagine that.