For first time, Olympics is all high-def

For the first time the Olympics games is being produced entirely in high-definition.

Over the next two weeks the victories and defeats of athletes at the 2008 Olympic Games will decide much of how the event will be remembered. But going into the competition, there is already one notable first: it is the first Olympics that will be produced entirely in high-definition (HD).

Previous Olympics have been partially produced in HD. At the Torino winter games, around 40 percent of coverage was high-def, available to broadcasters that wanted the better signal, but the baseline for all coverage was standard definition. This time things are different and the international broadcast feed is HD, with standard-definition broadcasts taking a down-converted feed.

Alongside the HD images is a 5.1-channel surround sound audio stream.

The scale and complexity of the coverage is large. Events will take place at 37 venues and from most of these live images will be fed back to the International Broadcasting Center (IBC) that houses Beijing Olympic Broadcasting (BOB), the company established to cover the games on behalf of the world's TV stations and Olympics rights-holders.

Around 40 live video signals will be provided by BOB to the rights holders, from which they can source images.

Because BOB's coverage is being beamed around the world, it has to remain neutral, giving equal airtime to all of the competitors. Some TV networks also place their own cameras in the venues so that additional close-ups and shots of national favorites can be mixed in with the BOB pictures to give a slightly more national flavor to the coverage.

The companies sitting at the center of this complexity is Panasonic, which is the official partner to the games in the audio and video equipment category. As such it is providing the 100 cameras, 250 video recorders and 1,500 monitors that will be used by BOB.

Some of the cameras use Panasonic's P2HD system, which records a video stream in DVCPRO HD to flash memory chips. A P2HD card can hold 32G bytes of memory, which works out to about 32 minutes of recording.

The big advantage of this system, or any that records directly to a flash or hard-disk, is that shot material is immediately available for editing. When older tape-based systems are hooked up to a PC the footage on the tape needs to be played into the PC and digitized before editing can begin.

The result is that for events that aren't covered live, such as sailing, the images should reach the broadcast center faster because the editing process will be shorter. In the case of sailing, held in the Chinese coastal city of Qingdao, the switch to P2 cards also removes potential problems that occur when tape and salt water get near each other.

The entire Olympics is being recorded in DVCPRO HD, a Panasonic-developed variant of the DV format that records full high-definition (1,920 pixels by 1,080 pixels interlaced) video at 100M bps (bits per second).

For Panasonic, the Olympics caps a year of preparation. Panasonic has been an Olympic sponsor since 1988 and recently renewed its sponsorship through 2016.

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Martyn Williams

IDG News Service
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