The Olympic Channel

Week 151 (27 August – 2 September 2016)

Launched during the Closing Ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, the new Olympic Channel has quickly established itself as a brave experiment in connecting new and old audiences with Olympic content.

For the moment, the Channel exists mainly as a website and as an app in the ITunes and Android stores. The programming so far has been eclectic. Classic sports reporting (think Laura Muir breaking the British record for 1500 metres during the IAAF Diamond League in Paris) has featured alongside behind-the-scenes footage from Rio 2016. Live competition coverage (ice hockey Olympic qualification) has appeared alongside an interview with a leading Japanese sport climber.

Key themes have already emerged. The Channel has not been afraid to cover issues that might cast a shadow, from Lochte to doping. Such editorial independence is necessary, however, to foster a credible relationship with viewers. It will pay long-term dividends of trust. Programming has also reflected the kind of pieces that have worked best on the Olympic.org social media channels recently: intimate portrayals of athletes and quirky shareable moments captured off the field of play.

The post-Games period has been rich with great material, especially satisfying from those having trouble with an abrupt end to 12 hours a day of multi-screen viewing. The Olympic Channel has taken advantage of this material well, differentiating itself from national rights-holders in the process. Welcome home ceremonies are now well established in key Olympic markets: the ritual of posing for a photo on the sponsoring airline's steps (with the plane's livery clearly in the background), the airport throngs, the vehicle-borne parade through town. But viewers typically only ever see their own country's team. To see the welcomes given in other rights-holders' territories is genuinely refreshing. This really hints at the promise of the Olympic Channel's premise.

The peaks and troughs of enthusiasm of Olympic content are so extreme that is was always reasonable to see what might be done to maintain interest in the fallow years. The Olympic Channel was a sound idea when first proposed by IOC President Thomas Bach nearly 25 years ago. It remains a sound idea now. Executing that idea, however, was always going to be a daunting challenge.

While the distribution costs for an online channel may be relatively low, generating resonant content and driving traffic towards that content both require dizzying resource levels. The production values for the Olympic Channel's pieces so far have been high, hardly surprising given the standards set by Olympic Broadcasting Services, creator of the international feed at Games time. So it's easy to understand why the Channel has been assigned a budget of $490 million for its first seven years.

Ensuring the content shown on the Olympic Channel's website is widely seen will prove costly. With one and a half million Facebook fans for the Channel's page, posting links to content there will likely only reach tens of thousands of viewers organically. Reaching more will require paid boosts. The Channel already appears to be paying to spread content, at least on Facebook. Rio 2016 provided some great examples of non-traditional sports content going viral without paying for reach and the Olympic Channel can also be expected to emulate these examples in the future.

A key benefit of an online channel is the ability to change it quickly, accentuating what works well and improving what works less well. The Channel's selection of news stories has quickly filled out, for example, but there is not yet the chance to search for a favourite athlete or sort news by sport. Expect that to change soon.

The launch of the Channel, meanwhile, has already given international federations a great opportunity to see their content spread beyond the usual fanbases for their sports. The combination of news coverage, features and live competition footage from the ongoing Olympic ice hockey qualifiers has amply demonstrated the Channel's ability to promote a sport in a novel and attractive way. Other international federations will doubtless be looking hard at how they might best take advantage.

The potential for the Olympic Channel to be the place where the best ideas come together, for the benefit of all, is truly exciting. For taking its first steps towards the critical goal of maintaining a powerful connection between young people and Olympic values, the Olympic Channel is JTA's Communicator of the Week.

Photo: Olympic Channel