Following on from our London Olympic Games story last week, we take a behind the scenes look at how Games coverage is planned with former ABC and SBS technical specialist David Wynter. With Australia’s athletes now arriving in London, Wynter recalls his preparations for Commonwealth and Olympic Games over a period of nearly 20 years.
In his 24 years at ABC Radio Wynter was involved as either a Technical Operations officer, Technical Producer or Technical Manager on the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane , the Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1984, the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh in 1986, Seoul’s Olympic Games in 1988, the Auckland Commonwealth Games in 1990, the Commonwealth Games in Victoria Canada in 1994 and the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
In 1997 he was offered a position with the Sydney Olympic Broadcasting Organisation as Manager Commentary Systems to plan and implement the technical side of Sydney 2000. Wynter says it was interesting to “change sides” for Sydney and work for the Host Broadcaster rather than the client. Here are his thoughts.
When Steve asked me to jot down a few notes on my experiences in the technical areas of Olympic and Commonwealth Games, I had to scratch hard at my memory banks to bring it all back. I am now semi-retired, but working actively as a consultant.
Behind the scenes, planning for a Games starts pretty well straight after the last one, which gives the team two years to get our act together. Of course this doesn’t start until everyone has a good holiday overseas straight after the last Games and believe me that was always vital because during a Games you can often be putting in 18 hours a day on some days or even 12 hour shifts on others. It’s just one of those jobs where you work until the job is done, forgetting time sheets, award rules, the inevitable colds or flu that hit the whole team and just get on with it. ABC Radio does not cover live the Winter Olympic Games.
I was extremely lucky that throughout my whole career at the ABC to have as my boss Executive Producer of Sport Alan Marks. Alan’s Games experience is second to none and this was evident in Alan being promoted to be Manager of ABC Radio’s Special Events Unit, which not only looked after Games coverage but other major events that had to be mounted. Alan and I worked closely ever since I started as a very junior operator at the ABC in 1974. In those days there were no Broadcast Boxes at football grounds, we all sat on the sideline getting very wet and occasionally copping a ball in the head. How times have changed. I am proud to say that even though Alan and I have both pulled back in our later years, he still remains one of my very close personal friends (and drinking buddies).
The first thing that really happens is for ABC to gain a Radio Broadcast Rights agreement. This is a long convoluted process. Often the contract is directly with the Host Broadcaster, but in later years it became even more complicated as the overall Australian rights were negotiated with an Australian television network and the ABC would have to negotiate with them to get exclusive radio rights, That used to happen with the ABC being recognised for all its expertise in the commentary team and technical abilities. However in recent times, the radio rights have been split between the ABC and a commercial Australian network.
When we started, we had one facility and combined the commercial commentary teams with the ABC team. We would send just one signal back to Sydney and the ABC Radio Master Control would give a split of that feed to the commercial network for their use as they saw fit. More recently as the commercial networks have gained more and more experience, they are starting to have their own facilities built in the International Broadcast Centre (I.B.C) and basically doing their own thing on the major sports and occasionally taking an ABC split of the minor ones.
While all of the above is going on, we on the technical production team had to just hope the ABC would get the rights and work with Alan on the design of the studio complex at the IBC including the layout, the walls for division, power and circuit requirements both in and out of the complex.
We had to make decisions which sports would be covered live at what venues and what other minor ones would be called from specially designed voice booths at our Games studio.
I was more than proud when Alan and I won a Gold medal at the New York Radio Awards for our coverage of the Seoul Marathon. This was because we had invented “simulated broadcasting” using hundreds of different effect tracks and the whole thing was done internally in our studio. Oh how this old fashioned broadcaster misses the day of cartridge loops. It was so easy with five or six cartridge machines to just grab a cart and push it in a slot and away you went. Really tight and nerve wrecking broadcasting but damn good fun. I don’t envy the guys these days with digital sources and heaps of menus to go through to find the track they need. I don’t care what anyone says, carts were far faster!
It was also fabulous to work with such pros as Bruce Webster who would host the coverage. All it took was a wink or a nod from him and we would act. It was sort of like mind reading between he, Alan and myself when I was panelling. Having experienced broadcasters like David Morrow at the venues also made it so very easy.
Often the host broadcaster would not get the layout right and on more that occasion I can remember walls coming down and being re-built soon after we arrived as the advance team about three weeks before the Games. One had in the early days a 10k analogue circuit booked back to Sydney MCR and a return 3k monitoring line so we could hear the network ex Sydney. We also had a 3k four wire order wire so we could communicate back to the Games studio hosting us in Sydney. Occasionally we would feed into other cities as local programs desired.
The guys in Sydney MCR were always fantastic and were a vital part of the broadcasts. Without them we would never have got so far. When we would do a cross to air because of satellite delay we had to adjust our start times and work to a very accurate crystal locked master clock system. If one was to take your cue off the return line there would have been a gap every time we crossed. I remember many “brawls” with the host broadcaster especially in regard to circuits back home being available on the date booked. There was one occasion where because of national pride the Host Broadcaster could never admit that they were not ready to set up our outgoing circuit and every day I’d march around there and get the same result – “Yes” they would say and that’s all!!!! Grrr. More Valium.
It’s all changed dramatically in modern times. Everything is digital all the way back. The ABC books dedicated digital circuits usually with an ISDN unit taking the same desk feed in case of circuit failure. As digital has become bigger and better, it is more economical to send separate feeds of sports clean fed directly to the host studio in Sydney. This makes it cheaper to send a smaller team and a lot more of the work is done back at base.
Yeah as I said it’s all memories now – but great ones! I wouldn’t have missed a moment. We worked hard, we played hard – and then we turned up again tomorrow and did it all over again.
The saying amongst us all was “I’m having an early night tonight” – but I don’t remember it ever happening! Ah those were the days.