Live From Pan Am Games: CBC’s Pilling on Broadcasting Canada’s Largest-ever Multisport Event

The Pan Am Games, now under way in Toronto, are the largest multisport games ever held in Canada, besting the 2010 Vancouver Olympics in number of events (36) and athletes (more than 6,000). In keeping with the magnitude of the event, CBC will broadcast nearly 750 hours of coverage in English and French, with another 650 hours of live-streaming coverage on desktops and mobile app.

As the Games’ host broadcaster, CBC has the ultimate home-court advantage: its network headquarters, located less than 2 miles away. And, although host-broadcaster CBC will leverage its at-home editing facilities to create the host feed, domestic-broadcaster CBC — an entirely separate operation — will rely heavily on its at-home control rooms, studios, and staff to create a Pan Am Games show tailored specifically for a Canadian audience.

SVG sat down with Trevor Pilling, head of programming, CBC Sports, before the Opening Ceremony to discuss his responsibility for CBC’s domestic coverage, both linear and digital; the perks of having a major multisport event in CBC’s backyard; and how Toronto 2015 will be a testing ground for Rio 2016.

The Opening Ceremony will be a pretty big event for CBC and for Canada. What will CBC’s role in that broadcast be, and what will it be moving forward in the Games?
Our role — similar to our role as [Canada’s] Olympic broadcaster — is to bring the games to Canadians, and it’s through our lens that Canadians will experience the Games. Our role is to take the wonderful sport coverage that the host broadcaster will provide us and to augment that with context. It really is about introducing the athletes [and] creating connections between the audience and those athletes.

CBC's Trevor Pilling inside the IBC

CBC’s Trevor Pilling inside the IBC

Like any multisport-games event, you could see people skating around in circles, but, if you don’t know what’s at stake, if you don’t know what’s on the line, if you don’t know some history about who these athletes are — about their competition, about their rivalries, about their back story — then it’s harder for the audience to create those connections and be invested in the athletes’ performance. It’s [on] us to give that context, to create those connections, and to bring it to life in a way that Canadians will be able to dig deep into it and care about it and be passionate about the athletes and appreciate the wonderful performances that these athletes are going to give us.

In terms of your CBC’s domestic coverage, how will you leverage CBC’s host feed, and how will you supplement with your own tools?
First of all, we will stream all of the content that the host broadcaster creates, so we’ll have approximately 650 hours of live-streamed sports on our app and on our desktop. All that content will then be available on demand. That’s a raw host feed that we’re making available to the public.

In terms of how we augment [our linear] coverage, we will host our programs domestically from our CBC studios on Front Street [in Downtown Toronto], and we will bring in all kinds of people involved in the Games, whether it be athletes, families of athletes, officials, etc. We will do as we would do at an Olympics: deploy some unilateral cameras. We have mixed zones at almost all of the venues, and a handful of them are wired to be live; a handful of them are not wired to be live. With so many venues and so many sports, we need to deploy resources in a fiscally responsible way, and so, obviously, the most popular venues will have the most dedicated resources.

From a commentary perspective — unlike an Olympic Games, where we would do pretty much all the commentary ourselves — because the host broadcaster is providing feeds with commentators on them, we’re going to take that commentary guide track from the host broadcaster, which is something we wouldn’t normally do. That said, a lot of those announcers the host broadcaster is using are people who come from CBC, so they’re still very familiar to our audience. We’re fortunate that the host broadcaster has a good roster of commentators and providing us with that commentary … and [the commentators] also know the backstory on a lot of the Canadian athletes, as well as the internationals, of course. That context that they’ll bring is important to us.

With CBC’s headquarters located less than 2 miles from the IBC, what is your presence at the IBC? What are you taking care of here, and what’s being done downtown?
It is a different experience to have “home games.” That said, this is a microcosm of what we would see in an Olympics. We have our control room here in Toronto — much like we do during Olympics — and we bring all of the feeds back into that facility rather than doing a one-off build of a control room in the IBC. We’re able to use the established control room that we use for our Olympic coverage, for our FIFA coverage, and so on. That’s a great advantage for us.

Here at the IBC, really, is a satellite location where we are able to work out of the Pan Am Park — gather content from here at these venues onsite — and then be able to feed that quickly to the CBC building and avoid the traffic that inevitably will be happening between here and there. For us, [the IBC] isn’t as used as it would be at an Olympic Games because we have our home base just down the street. What we’re going to do here is, have some space for all services — French, English, television, radio, and all of our digital assets — who will be able to come and work out of this space when necessary.

We have a very good working relationship with the Canadian Olympic Committee, who are going to help facilitate athlete interviews for all CBC services coming through the CBC building, which is great for us because not only do we get to put them on our national broadcast [but] that will be a way for regions across the country to have access to athletes from their hometowns, which is something we put a great deal of effort into before the Games. We have a program that we called #ourathlete, and each of the regions across the country adopted an athlete or two from that region and talked about them in that city, town, or region so that people from that area know who the key athletes are, know when they’ll compete, and have that connection. That’s one of the great things about sport: being able to tell these stories to connect people and athletes to their hometowns. That’s part of the responsibility I feel.

Are there any particular areas of focus for CBC, either specific sports or venues? Or will you try to show the entirety of the Pan Am Games?
While it’s important for us to be comprehensive, we do — as a nation, as Canada — have 750+ athletes as part of the Canadian team, and we’re just not going to have enough airtime to tell all of those stories. We will need to focus, and, frankly, our focus will be on the athletes who we anticipate seeing in Rio next summer. It’s a wonderful opportunity for us, from a storytelling perspective, to help those summer athletes become known and to then connect those athlete stories to the audience so that they are anticipating what’s going to happen at the Olympics next summer.

It also provides us with a great opportunity again to test some new systems. There have been changes at CBC Sports since we did the Olympic Games in 2014, and the Pan Am Games give us an excellent opportunity to do some dry runs on some new systems that we’re going to employ for Rio. It’s great to be able to see what works and what doesn’t on a slightly smaller scale, so that, next year, when we go with the bigger, Olympic show, we’ll have seen a lot of the systems in place. We’ll have been able to perfect the onboarding that we have to do a lot of as we bring in freelancers to staff our program. Onboarding is a very important part of making sure that people know what their roles are. Like any good team, you need a game plan: the team needs to know the plays and what’s expected of them for them to meet the expectations. That onboarding process is really important for us, so, as a whole, the Pan Am Games are an excellent lead-up to Rio for us.

Plans for the Pan Am Games have been in the works for CBC for quite some time. How gratifying must it be for you and your team to finally get here and have this massive event that’s basically in your own backyard?
It’s very exciting. I’m very hopeful that Canada recognizes the excellence of the athletes who are participating here. I think most Games follow this trajectory: people are negative until the Games start, and then, as the country does well and some medals are won, then people get on board and [say] this is actually a great event, and they stop focusing on, for example, traffic issues.

I’m really proud of the effort that the team’s put in to get us ready and get us in a position to do a great show. We do feel a lot of responsibility to have Canada feel proud about these Games: even though we’re not the organizers, we still want people to feel good about what’s going on here, and we want to make sure we do a good job and live up to our own expectations because we know that, if we can meet our expectations, then we’ll have met the public’s expectations because we have a high set of expectations for ourselves.

I’m really pleased with what the team has done. We have some great features, some great storytelling that we’ve done to help augment the coverage, and we’re making all the content available digitally. Now it’s up to the athletes to give us some great performances and to knock it out of the park, and we’ll keep on the stories and be really excited to bring another Games to our country.

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