USA Gymnastics, AT&T’s Blue Room offer online original programming

By Carl Lindemann

The 2008 Beijing Olympics are likely to be a watershed moment for the Chinese reminiscent of the Tokyo Olympics of 1964 where Japan reemerged on the world stage after World War II. It’s also looking to be a watershed event for online coverage leading up to the actual events. With just over a year till the opening ceremonies, the first pre-event coverage is starting to go forward online. AT&T’s Blue Room content distribution site has just posted the first “Webisode” of “USA Gymnastics: Behind the Team” (attblueroom.com/teamusa). With as many as 38 more segments to be released, gymnastics fans will be able to check in with how the team is training and triumphing at various events building up to the big events ahead.

“We’ve got high expectations and are reaching out to consumers and will continue to evaluate just what people want in terms of this kind of access to US Olympic teams,” said Jason Simpson, AT&T’s Director of Olympic Integration.

As an Olympic sponsor since Torino, AT&T has been gearing up for what’s ahead and has been developing relationships with 24 other USA sports teams including track and field and gymnastics. The USA Gymnastics series is the first of what may be an extensive array of mini-series giving different takes on the various sports as they move on down the road to Beijing.

“We’re still in the early stages, some 400 days out from the opening ceremonies. We’ll be making decisions very soon about additional sports we’ll be following. Each series will be unique to the sport, much as ‘Behind the Team’ is to USA Gymnastics,” Simpson said.

The Team USA section of the AT&T Blue Room is just part of a larger entertainment offering that launched with music programs back in 2005. The sports programming has already hit with Deion Sanders’ “Home Turf”, interviews with sports stars that look at their homes. According to company officials, there have been some 3 million

Home Turf Webisode views thus far. The prospects for Olympic gold are greater still. But mining that for all its worth means getting right on target with USA Gymnastics. To aid in that effort, AT&T is tapping research resources from its entertainment services group.

Unlike “Home Turf”, “Behind the Team” is produced by USA Gymnastics. The decision to keep this in-house came after considering numerous deals from various production outfits.

“Our premier events are broadcast by NBC Sports, but we have many events and activities that we knew could do well as a Webcast,” said Steve Penny, USA Gymnastics’ President and CEO. “We had been debating how to move forward telling our story on a candid level, but were concerned about exploitation from independent contract out to get ratings. After listening to a lot of ideas and potential partners, nothing felt right except telling our own story.”

USA Gymnastics had already developed in-house video production resources several years back working in standard definition MiniDV with some Canon GL 1 camcorders. For this project, they added an XH A1 to shoot footage in HDV. While the web output doesn’t really take advantage of the high dcf resolution, they get high def archives for future repurposing.

Kent Koven, USA Gymnastics’ Production Services Manager is hands-on with the shoots and has already shot more than 50 hours of raw footage since starting the project in March. He uses the Adobe Premier editing suite with Adobe After Effects for graphics to finish the short pieces with PC-based non-linear editing. Koven does not send compressed files for AT&T’s distribution.

Instead, the uncompressed .AVI files get sent via FTP. According to Koven, sending DVD data disks via delivery services will not suffice when things heat up as the games get closer. He expects to FTP content from overseas from various events scheduled and there’s no time for physically delivering the files. Fortunately, a

finished Webisode isn’t all that long. The first featuring Mary Lou Retton runs just over five minutes, and feedback has already called for cutting that down to almost half that.

“When we started, I had a target time of five minutes in mind (for segments). But the feedback we’ve been getting tells us to cut it down into 2.5 – 3 minute segments. We’ve found that the appetite of the online consumer is for shorter

pieces, and so it’s better to deliver 2-3 segments rather than one long episode,” Koven said.

The look of Webisode 1 is impressive, and the compression manages to show much of the action despite the fast moves. Still, opting for in-house production over the potential for exploitation is problematic, too. For Penny, this approach will deliver the goods because of the intimacy that they can enjoy keeping it in-the-family.

“We’ll be able to address myths, hear from athletes and coaches directly instead of from outsiders guessing what they think. They get to talk to people they know and trust, and we deliver something compelling that does not cross the line,” Penny said.

The other USA sports under the AT&T umbrella may go this route. Or AT&T may take charge of production for their stories much as they contract production out on “Home Turf.” Either way, the Beijing Games are going to be a bonanza for such microbroadcasts and likely a boon to the various sports.

“We get to tell our story over 18 months and that’s much better than a 1-2 hour hit on some network,” said Penny. “That’s a nice span of time to give people a chance to reflect on who we are, what our brand is.”

This online coverage is likely to create intense viewer interest and understanding when the games actually arrive. Whatever the audience numbers, with all the pre-event prep, we can expect the best-educated viewers with such Olympic-class training.