TV SportsWired for Wall-to-Wall Coverage
By Brian Stelter, The New York Times
- Jul. 26, 2012
LONDON — The power briefly went off at NBC’s satellite farm here Monday. And a router overheated, requiring a reboot. And a test of the connections between the network’s news and sports computers revealed some missing wires.
Hiccup after hiccup — all expected, even embraced, by the hundreds of staff members who were setting up for the most expansive Olympics telecast in history. Their deadline is Friday, when the opening ceremony takes place at Olympic Stadium. Dave Mazza programmed the exact time into his computer’s calendar about three years ago, just as he did before the Summer Games in Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008.
“When that thing goes ‘ding’ and the ceremony starts, it’s a very satisfying moment,” he said.
Mazza is the engineer-in-chief for NBC Olympics, the division of NBC Sports that transplants the network in a new Olympic city every two years. He has been here for nearly three months already, overseeing the installation of the network’s control rooms and servers at the International Broadcast Center about a mile from the main stadium. His staff has nearly 100 distinct video feeds going to the United States, the most ever for an Olympics, all destined for the main NBC network and a panoply of cable channels and Web sites.
“Either it’s getting harder, or we’re getting older,” Mazza, an 18-year veteran of NBC, said with a laugh as he showed a reporter around the control rooms.
Indeed, as watching the Olympics at home has become easier, getting all the signals straight has become harder.
“What we place on the shoulders of Dave each Olympics is enormous growth,” said Gary Zenkel, the president of NBC Olympics. One year, he said, there was the transition to high-definition; another year, the addition of selected online streams. This year, for the first time, every single event will be live-streamed on NBCOlympics.com, and a handful will be shown in 3D on a special cable channel.
The volume of video — roughly 325 hours’ worth a day — must be carried to the United States on a complex series of circuits that are diagramed on a wall in NBC’s work space. “We call this the subway map,” Mazza said proudly.
What a difference a decade makes. In Sydney, Australia, for the 2000 Summer Olympics, NBC sent three video feeds, technically called circuits, to the United States. Now it sends 92. They show up as small lines of strings on the diagram, each with a different color name (turquoise, scarlet, taupe, maroon, azure; colors translate well around the world) and a different purpose.
Some key video feeds are named for the British royals: Will is carried across the Atlantic on a separate path from Kate, in case one path is interrupted for any reason. There are backups for the backups, too, including a few satellite paths “in case everything else dies,” Mazza said.
“It all depends on the level of risk,” he said. “If it’s the prime-time show, we could get on the air about six different ways. If it’s the stream of table tennis, there might be a single thread.”
Sending so much video to the United States, a step also taken for the Beijing Games, also allows for more work to be done there, saving money for NBC. Five control rooms in New York are dedicated to the Games’ coverage, as are dozens of editors and producers. It is almost as if the engineers have erased the Atlantic Ocean off the map — but there is still a 3.5-second delay for the video to and fro.
High-end editing work still takes place mostly on site. In Sydney, NBC had 22 TOES, shorthand for what the staff called the Trusty Old Editing System. Here it has two. These linear editing suites have been almost completely superseded by software editing systems made by Avid. There are 45 Avid systems in London, up from three in Sydney. (Avid technicians are in the hallway in case anything goes awry.)
The editing gear and 40,000 other pieces of equipment are shipped in and out by an operations group led by Mazza’s counterpart John Fritsche. Some of the equipment, like the shock-mounted platforms for servers called RIBS, short for racks in a box, has been around since the games in Sydney. Mazza led the charge toward reusable infrastructure, which greatly reduces the amount of wiring that has to be done each time the network sets up in a new city.
Owing to advances in technology, some of the infrastructure has shrunk as the years have passed. There are fewer RIBS, for instance, because video feeds are now better compressed. And there are far fewer discs with old footage in storage. “This room is half the size it used to be,” Zenkel said as he walked by the discs, most of which were from the Beijing Games. Older footage (useful, say, to show past gold medal wins) is back in the United States, having been made accessible through a robotic tape server for the first time.
Other pieces of equipment are reused elsewhere in the NBC universe. A $400,000 audio console for a control room, for instance, will be installed after the Games at the network’s new NBC Sports facility in Stamford, Conn.
“We don’t buy it unless we know where it’s going postgame,” Mazza said.
NBC, as the biggest Olympic broadcaster by far, occupies about one-fifth of the broadcast center here. Drilling and hammering was still going on this week in the mammoth building, but those were the sounds of other countries’ networks; NBC seemed ready, aside from the occasional router outage. By the water cooler, there was a video conferencing camera for face-to-face meetings with colleagues in New York. On the whiteboard was the British expression of the day: “drop a clanger,” meaning “to mess up.”
“We’re somewhat like a traveling circus,” said Mazza, who also likes to analogize his staff to an army. (NBC Olympics has about 75 full-time staff members and flies in about 1,500 freelancers during the Games.)
Circus or army, it is practically invisible to viewers; but that is the point. When Mazza watches the opening ceremony himself, as he did with his home digital video recorder after the Beijing Games, he marvels at what is not there.
“Think,” he said, not to viewers but to himself, “about all the things that had to happen right for that to come on, perfectly, at 8 o’clock — including that little device back there in my living room.”http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/26/sports/olympics/nbc-gets-wired-for-wall-to-wall-olympic-coverage.html?_r=1&ref=technology