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Think BR: Will London 2012 herald the next great innovation in sports coverage?

Changes in the way we watch and experience sport on TV will make this a very different Olympic Games, writes John McDonald, planning director, Red Bee Media.

John McDonald, planning director, Red Bee Media

John McDonald, planning director, Red Bee Media

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In 1927, BBC Radio broadcast the world’s first coverage of a football match. And it was a fiasco because listeners couldn’t understand where the ball was on the pitch.

So the next week, BBC Sport published a grid in the Radio Times that divided the pitch into eight segments.

Then, during the broadcast, one of the two commentators simply shouted numbers corresponding to the ball’s location.

To a modern ear, this recording sounds comical. The blurting of numbers "1…5…8…3…" sounds like an overly caffeinated bingo caller or malfunctioning robot.

But in its time it was the first great example of innovation to help audiences get more from sport.

Since then, the best sports broadcasters have developed ever-greater innovations:

  • BBC’s snooker in colour
  • Fox Sport’s onscreen clock
  • Channel 4’s Hawkeye in cricket
  • Sky’s HD and 3D

But I think we’re now entering a new era in TV sport innovation. London 2012 is being hailed as the "first social Olympic games". It’s amazing to think that since Beijing 2008, Facebook has grown nine times larger, while Twitter has grown 100 fold.

Four billion people worldwide are expected to watch London 2012 on TV and at least one billion will view events, receive updates and check results on digital and mobile devices. There will also be billions more engaging with the Games through social networks.

For this year’s Olympics, the BBC and NBC have each announced a tie-in with Facebook. On BBC Sport’s Facebook app, you’ll be able to stream every event live. When you ‘Like’ a stream, it will tell your friends you are watching, say, beach volleyball.

In America, the NBC Olympics page on Facebook will carry exclusive content for fans. The data generated by people watching online will then be used to inform which events NBC showcases later that evening.

Meanwhile, YouTube has snapped up the digital rights to the Olympics in 64 territories across Asia and Africa, which will provide a global discussion forum for YouTube’s famously erudite and tolerant commenters below the line.

And Twitter will give fans unmediated access to their favourite stars. It’s a big change from previous Games, but might be a double edged sword. On the one hand, it’s great PR for star athletes like Phillips Idowu to converse directly with millions of fans and give them an insight into how they’re thinking and feeling. On the other hand, trolls have already forced Rebecca Adlington to quit Twitter.

So could there be too much social media access to our Olympians? As well as giving a platform to normal, considerate fans, does Twitter also turn on what Charlie Brooker called ‘The Idiot Magnet’? And does this risk our star athletes being distracted by poorly-spelled insults when they should be ‘in the zone’?

But this ultimately feels like a side-issue. The truth is that social media has wrought a revolution which will radically change the way we enjoy these Games. We’ll all be watching together and chatting about events together. And when Yohan Blake beats Usain Bolt in the 100m final (you read it here first, folks) the whole world can stand gobsmacked and share a moment of history together.

These Olympics are sure to be dramatically different to Beijing 2008. The opening ceremony will be a bit more shoestring and should the rain return it will make it feel much more like a Tarkovsky movie. But will it also be different in the way we watch and experience it socially?

Let me know what you think in the idiot magnet - I mean comments section - below.

John McDonald, planning director, Red Bee Media


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