Live From Vancouver, Universal Sports Creates Morning Olympics Viewing Guide

For the past two months, Universal Sports has been in the midst of a major transition, moving into new studio space in Westlake Village, CA, and solving the challenges posed by a new HD workflow. For the past two weeks, however, Universal Sports has been a well-oiled machine, producing five hours of morning coverage from the Winter Olympics to let fans know what they can watch, and where, throughout the Games.

“Our biggest challenge has been the integration and complexities that we were taking on,” says Universal Sports CEO Claude Ruibal. “With 100 extra people joining our team and a new facility in Westlake that was only 45 days old when the Games began, my biggest fear was that everything was just going to melt. But we are succeeding with this.”

Every Day, an Early Start
Though an NBC cable affiliate, Universal Sports does not have the rights to broadcast any long-form content of the Games, just results, clips, and news. So it has carved its niche in the early-morning hours Pacific Time. The network goes live at 7 a.m. PT with a Vancouver Olympic News Center studio show, affectionately referred to as the Morning Buzz, which offers extended highlights, results, interviews, and analysis from the previous day’s competition and a preview of the upcoming day’s events. The three-camera set is just behind the Olympic Cauldron at the International Broadcast Center, overlooking the water where the Olympic rings are afloat.

In the 8:30-9 a.m. period, the network airs a series of behind-the-scenes vignettes in Behind the Games, telling the stories of the workers behind the athletes, from Zamboni drivers to ski-race gate setters.

“The editors really do that show overnight,” Ruibal says. “They cut the clips, send the pieces down to Westlake, and they assemble the show down there. We’re going 24/7 with people working all night cutting clips.”

A 24/7 Workflow
To create the clips for each show, the producer in Vancouver watches the world feed of each of the events, taking note of the type of shot wanted for the highlight the next morning.

“I can’t get a comprehensive feel for all of the footage being shot, but I try to get a minimum base,” explains Kristen Rocky, producer of Meet the Olympic Press, a 30-minute show that airs at 9-9:30 a.m. “I let the producers in Westlake know that I want the super-slo-mo shot of a specific skater or a certain reaction from a coach. Or I tell them to simply pick three seconds of a bobsled run, and then they pull the shots.”

Seven edit bays, two switchers, and one EVS server are running 24/7 in Westlake to capture footage and create those highlight rundowns. If an important shot is missed, the Universal Sports producer can request it from the NBC tape library, NBC sports desk, or any of the other international broadcasters sitting down the hall in the IBC.

“I check with Swedish television, Norwegian television, or even go outside of our compound and ask,” Rocky says. “It’s been amazingly easy to find the footage that we want.”

California to Vancouver and Back Again
Once the highlights are cut, the Westlake crew sends the rundown to Vancouver via an OC3 circuit that contains six inbound HD video circuits and four outbound HD and SD circuits.

“The clips are sent using ASI encoding,” says Keith Manasco, VP of operations for Universal Sports. “ASI encoding squashes the clips so that they’re less bandwidth-intensive. We have a 10-Mb data stream, and we have production terminals in both locations so that we can share program rundowns and research databases.”

Once the clips make their way back to Vancouver, Rocky shares the rundown with Meet the Olympic Press host Jimmy Roberts a few hours before airtime and makes any changes. The revised version is then sent via OC3 circuit back to Westlake, where it is played out during the show.

Meet the Olympic Press has been one of my favorite shows,” Ruibal says. “We invite a whole set of guests to join us from NBC, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Sports Illustrated. I think it’s really fun to see a Meet the Press for the Olympics, and the video adds value to it.”

The production team gets a break between 9:30 and 10:30, when the network shows a reprise of the Vancouver Olympic News Center, cutting the last 30 minutes out of the original 90-minute version, before new content airs at 10:30-11 a.m. The Olympic Review/Preview show focuses on individual sports, key statistics, and information from each venue.

The crown jewel of the schedule is the Vancouver Figure Skating Hour, 11 a.m.-noon, which offers news updates, a live-results ticker, and some of the biggest names in figure skating as guests and hosts.

“Figure skating merits a one-hour show,” Ruibal says. “There is activity every night. This is the first figure-skating show ever done around the Olympics, and we felt that figure skating was a big enough piece of the Winter Games for this to work.”

Bottom-Line Signposts
Hourly updates are also delivered throughout the five-hour block, from Universal Sports’ Westlake and Vancouver studios as well as from a field crew in Whistler. An on-screen crawl constantly lets viewers know what networks to go to for live coverage later in the day and gives viewers some bearings during the Games, since NBC scatters its coverage across cable networks.

“The bottom line uses Brainstorm, a high-end graphics package that runs the ticker,” Manasco says. “It is created by a company called IDS.”

The crawl, as well as the entire graphics package, is added into the feed at the network’s channel-origination facility in Andrita, CA.

No HD Just Yet
Although the new Westlake studio facility runs in full 1080i HD, Universal Sports is currently offered only in SD, due to bandwidth restrictions within the cable systems on which the network is currently distributed.

“Our cable dealerships are multicast, so there’s only 19.2 Mb of bandwidth,” Ruibal explains. “Within the cable systems, each of the broadcasters uses 12 Mb-14 Mb for their main owned-and-operated station, so then we go out at about 5 Mb. We all know that sports is so much more vibrant in HD, so we are hoping we can get HD distribution soon.”

Universal Sports’ content is produced in HD for archival purposes, but the final output is downconverted and letterboxed into 4:3 SD.

One Team, Two Networks
The relationship with parent company NBC Universal has helped Universal Sports not only with logistics like workspace in the IBC and staffing — the network hired 100 extra bodies to handle the extended coverage of the Olympic Games — but with intangibles like confidence and expertise.

“I didn’t worry so much about all of this working, because I have a lot of confidence in [NBC SVP of Engineering] Dave Mazza and his whole team,” Ruibal says. “I knew he would know everything we need to do to make this happen. To be able to bring the kind of talent that NBC has brought into our organization, I could never have done that by myself. Having the NBC guys as part of our team made it immensely probable that we could succeed.”

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