OLYMPIC SPECIAL REPORT: NBC’s Broadcast Strategy

After years of preparation the city of Torino, which hosts the XX Winter Olympic games beginning on Feb. 10 and through Feb. 26, is finally showing that preparation pay off. But the city of Torino and the IOC isn’t alone. NBC Olympics, for example, is dedicated to ensuring that NBC’s Olympic technical operations are up to the challenge of helping NBC earn back its outlay of $613 million for the rights to the current games.

The Winter Games always pose an extra challenge because of the shorter window and in this case it was only 17 months, says Dave Mazza, NBC senior vice president of Olympic engineering. When you consider that we have to begin building the facility four months before the games that 17 months is down to 13. And when you consider the time it takes to order equipment and have it delivered that doesn t leave a lot of time.

Mazza and more than 2,800 NBC employees, however, are getting it done. The network s 75,000 sq. ft. broadcast center is located about 3 kilometers south of the center of town in an old Fiat plant that has been converted into the International Broadcast Center (as well as two hotels and a massive shopping center) is just about ready to go. And much of that is due to a technology decision that was made prior to the 2000 Sydney Summer Games.

Strong RIBS
At the time NBC was looking for ways to minimize the amount of set-up time and to also make it easier to re-use equipment without having to start from scratch every two years. Mazza and his team came up with the idea for RIBS or Racks-In-The-Box. Each RIB platform contains two rows of 10 racks of gear attached via shock mounts. Each RIB includes gear for a different technical task like routing, transmission, communications, or videotape decks and servers. Each RIB can then be shipped easily in 20-foot shipping containers without having to unplug and disconnect all of the gear.

The entire NBC Olympic facility is assembled in less than 40 days, then tested and debugged for 40 days, and then, once fully operational, in use for 35 days.
This week one of Mazza s top concerns has little to do with new HD technology, new server systems or a fiber transmission link across the Atlantic Ocean. Instead it s the classic Winter Olympic challenge: weather. In recent days Torino and the surrounding area (known as Piemonte) has been inundated with a large amount of snow and rain. And while that s great for the ski slopes it can wreak havoc on the villages below.

This weekend s challenge is that half of the venue compounds are in two to three feet of water, says Mazza. A lot of the compounds are temporary so they weren t graded properly or had the proper drainage put in so huge amounts of standing water are in the compounds. The opening ceremony compound is under water and all of the power infrastructure is submerged.

Wet Wrinkle
The opening ceremony production truck expected to roll in to place this Wednesday although Mazza isn t sure it will be in on time. He says the compound will most likely have to be pumped out and dried out before flipping the switch, one of the ever-expanding list of unexpected twists and turns that can sometimes make creating the broadcasts as intriguing as the athletic competition.

Another twist is that the compound below Sestriere Colle, where the slalom and GS skiing events will be held, is actually on a golf course. In order to protect the course from wear and team a large platform with metal plates was built on the course. The problem? They re so slippery we can t even walk or drive a vehicle on it, says Mazza. And even if we park something there it will slide down because it s not very flat. So there is just a lot of basic stuff that seems simple but can be hard.

After a solid five days of rain, snow, and clouds sunny blue skies returned to Torino this morning just in time to help the compounds dry out and for crews to lay down gravel or figure out another solution to the slippery platform problem.

Despite the occassional unscheduled challenge Mazza says things are going very well. And that’s saying a lot considering that NBC is taking a big HD leap. Thirty-one Avid and Sony edit rooms, 300 HD videotape recorders, and 16,000 blank videotape as well as 200,000 feet of triax cable will be used to deliver HD content to an audience of more than 187 million viewers.

Mazza is the first to acknowledge that there are still not many HD experts. In addition, many of the 2,800 NBC staffers have never worked with HD at all (in Athens NBC had a 50-person team dedicated to its HD broadcasts). Nonetheless, this time around everyone will be working in HD. Mazza’s advice to the uninitiated? Accept any new boundaries and work with them, rather than fight them.

TOMORROW: An inside look at the new HD IBC.

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