On Thursday morning, as the countdown to the long-delayed Tokyo Games ticked below the 50-day mark, the head of CBC’s Olympics programming was informed that the top story on the public broadcaster’s Olympics website was that 10,000 local volunteers had just told the organizing committee they would not be showing up. “It’s never boring,” Chris Wilson, the executive director of CBC Sports and Olympics, said with a chuckle.
For months now, even as he and his team have ramped up their planning for Tokyo, a spectre of uncertainty has hovered over all of it: Will the Summer Olympics actually take place from July 23 to Aug. 8, followed by the Paralympics from Aug. 24 to Sept. 5, their new timeslots after they were postponed by the pandemic last year?
“My standard answer is, I believe that they will,” he said. “But it’s a constant state of evaluation. If you’re asking me today, yes, I believe they will happen. But ask me again tomorrow.”
In the meantime, Wilson and his team have spent the past year adapting their original plans for elaborate pandemic-proof protocols to ensure they can safely produce a TV spectacle that will run 23 hours a day for 17 days in a row on the main network, with thousands of hours on other platforms including CBC’s streaming service Gem and Sportsnet and TSN, to whom it is sublicensing some rights.
And, especially over the past few months, there have been intense conversations about how to sensitively produce what is conventionally treated as an exercise in nationalistic pride, at a time when most other countries will likely be in the midst of far worse misery than Canada from COVID-19.
After all, by the time the Games begin, a significant majority of Canadians will likely have had their first dose of vaccine, if not also their second. Nevertheless, CBC’s workplace protocols will not presume any level of inoculation among its production crew.
“Traditionally, the Olympics puts a lot of people into a small space, for efficiency, so we can see each other, talk to each other, hand over our tools, and do things in a small space, kind of around-the-clock for three weeks,” said Chris Irwin, the executive producer and head of production for CBC Olympics. “None of that works in a COVID environment.”
One silver lining of the pandemic is that the CBC’s Broadcast Centre in downtown Toronto remains severely underpopulated, with the majority of employees still working remotely. So the Olympics production crew will be able to physically distance across vast distances and floors. They’ll even have their own dedicated elevator bank to ensure they don’t mix with the handful of other crews in the building, such as those producing The National and the CBC News Network programming.
CBC will deploy rapid COVID-19 tests for those at the Broadcast Centre, with each person testing about three times a week. And the crews of each studio show will be bubbled – or, at least, separated from each other.
While viewers may not notice those behind-the-scenes changes, they’ll see some stark differences from previous Games on their TVs. Most visibly, the studio shows (all times Eastern) – the primetime (7 p.m. to midnight) broadcast hosted by Scott Russell, the overnight (midnight to 6 a.m.) broadcast co-hosted by Heather Hiscox and former Olympian Alexandre Despatie, the morning show (6 a.m. to noon) hosted by Andi Petrillo, and the daytime (noon to 6 p.m.) show co-hosted by Andrew Chang and former Olympian Perdita Felicien – will all be based in Toronto rather than in Tokyo.
“We believe strongly that the hosting location is a big part of our Olympic story, and how we produce it,” Irwin said. “But in this case, we needed to make some decisions early to understand what we were planning for. And we made our decision last fall that we would bring the hosts and the studios home, because it meant we weren’t going to ship all of that extra studio and sets and equipment, get it there and find out we couldn’t use it [because of the potential for shifting protocols], or get it halfway there and have to somehow try to get it back.”
So: No Andre De Grasse or Penny Oleksiak popping into the studio after their triumph to sit on a couch for a chat with Russell. Still, Irwin said, “I think you will find a lot of [the athletes] virtually in the studio. Technology has given us many ways to bring people into the room.”
Viewers may also notice that it will likely take longer for CBC to get athletes on camera after their performance because of restrictions in access, even for official broadcasters. But while that may be an issue for the Beijing Winter Games next February (depending on the state of the pandemic), there are far more sports during the Summer Games. “So if we end up doing an update of tennis or golf before we hear the interview from the athlete we just watched, I don’t think most people would really notice those types of things at a Summer Games because you’re bombarded with results and stories and highlights around the clock,” Irwin said.
Wilson said there will be about 140 staff on the ground in Tokyo who have travelled from Canada, down about half of the usual allotment. Sixteen reporters will feed both the English-language CBC and the French-language Radio-Canada coverage, assisted by producers, some of whom are bilingual and therefore may be able to ask questions from behind the camera in whichever language the reporter doesn’t speak.
But at the moment, the plan is for only two sports to be called by commentators who are actually in Tokyo: aquatics and athletics. The rest will be called out of Toronto and Montreal by commentators watching video feeds, similar to the way broadcasters handled much of the NHL, NBA and MLB coverage after those leagues resumed play last summer. CBC has renovated many of its voiceover booths to permit two people to safely share a space usually occupied by one.
As for the tone it will aim for, producers won’t know for certain exactly how it will sound until their intense preproduction period begins in early July, leading into about one week’s worth of rehearsals before the opening ceremonies. “But there’s certainly been a lot of internal conversations about the tone of our coverage and the priorities,” Wilson said. “I think that it’s fair to say that our executive producers of the coverage are conscious of the state of the country, the state of the world and they are going to read the room with our coverage.”
Wilson admits he doesn’t yet even know what the opening ceremonies will look like. “Like everything, it’s taking time to plan things,” he said. “So we don’t have very many details at all. But we know enough to know that it’s still going to be a great kickoff to the Games.”
Still, he acknowledged some of the tune-in might be driven by rubbernecking – though he wouldn’t use that term. “I think there’s a certain number of people that won’t believe it’s going to happen until they see it happen, see the opening ceremonies,” he said.
“Ultimately, I’m thinking these Games are going to be part curiosity and part just a uniting, rallying point for Canadians, and hopefully it really can act as a bit of a light at the end of a pandemic tunnel, if you will. And those that hopefully tune in because they’re curious will stay because of the great sport and cheering on Canada, as normally happens with the Olympics.”