Live From Rio 2016: Dave Mazza Discusses How NBC Olympics Team Finds Its Games Groove
“This is the hardest games we have done to date."
The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio are now in day six, and, historically, that has meant that the NBC Olympics team is getting into its groove as the sheer number of moving parts at the IBC and the venues settle into place. But this year’s effort has been a bit different, thanks to a combination of planning, contingency workflows, and, perhaps most of all, veteran leadership.
“This is the hardest games we have done to date and has been the most challenging effort before an Opening Ceremony that we have had anywhere,” says David Mazza, SVP/CTO, NBC Sports Group and NBC Olympics.
Ironically, he adds, as difficult as it was getting things in line for the Opening Ceremony, the entire operation was able to smooth out any of the typical early kinks a full day and a half earlier than usual.
“It smoothed out much sooner than in recent history: by 3 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, things were going well,” he says. “So, right now, we’re quite happy.”
The build-out at the IBC was also smoother than for the past six Olympics, and Mazza credits OBS’s decision to put a huge amount of time, effort, and money into building a transportable wall system.
“We reaped the benefit big time, as it was the first time in a long time that we arrived on the date we were supposed to with our racks and wiring and the IBC was ready,” says Mazza. “The walls were up, it was clean, and there was no dust, so we had to worry only about our own stuff and not the walls or power that wasn’t installed. That’s a huge credit to OBS.”
The steps taken by OBS were complemented by NBC Olympics’ veteran leadership and the experience the NBC Olympics team has accrued over the years. First, the team knew there might be logistical and power delays that could cause some hiccups in the weeks ahead of the Games.
“We did a lot of prefabrication and testing in the U.S. so that, when equipment arrived here, it was ready to go,” says Mazza.
But most important, the team is ready for just about anything because they have experienced pretty much everything over the years. The veteran leadership has made a big difference on the 25 productions that typically have smaller crews and require problems to be solved via creativity and innovation.
“I couldn’t be happier with where we are. It’s a testament to the team that we are fortunate enough to have assembled,” says Mazza. “Even as the complexity of the show grows each Games, they all grasped the changes, and things smoothed out quickly.
“And,” he continues, “we’re lucky enough to bring back many of the same ops/engineering folks that are familiar with the many weird ways that we have had to invent in order to cover the small venues.”
Veteran leadership also meant that the team was well-versed in the possible challenges related to logistics, power, and even venue and IBC design that can trip up any production at any time.
One of those emergency situations happened on the second day of the Games, when one of the two power generators at the Beach Volleyball venue on Copacabana Beach went down prior to primetime coverage. The NBC unilateral operation had to run off of one generator until a new one was allowed to be brought in at 3 a.m. and was up and running a couple of hours later.
“We had to get through primetime,” Mazza explains, “so we sent some tie-line codecs out there so that, if the generator failed, we could get the commentary from the announce booth back to the IBC and then drop it on top of the host video feed from the venue.”
Flipping the Switch
He notes that the days leading up to the Opening Ceremony can be terrifying at times. Only 10 days prior to the start of action, not a single one of NBC’s remote-production units was onsite. Although that was the plan, it doesn’t mean that waiting was not without its stresses.
“The IBC was running happily, and everything was all pre-staged and ready to deploy, but, with the trucks not there till so late, it still is very unnerving,” says Mazza. “And then, as you go into the countdown of that week, there is a massive amount of activity getting the trucks up and running at the venues.”
The stress was compounded prior to the start of the Games when one of the primary 10-Gbps circuits to the U.S. was rerouted, adding more latency and noise to the signal.
“And, the next morning, the B and C circuits went out an hour before the Today show was going on-air,” Mazza recalls. “So things like the trucks arriving and access to the venues can be nerve-wracking, while things like the 10-Gbps circuits’ disappearing can be terrifying.”
The Live Advantage
For the first time in more than 20 years, an Olympic Games has lined up time-zone–wise with the East Coast of the U.S., and that means plenty of truly live production is being offered by the NBC Olympics team. And that is just the way Mazza likes it.
“Everybody in our industry performs better when you’re live, because that’s what everyone is used to and you know you only have one shot to get it right,” he explains. “And, like anything in life, if you have the option to redo something, it causes people to rethink, change their mind, and be overly critical. So live is better on all fronts, as you don’t have hours and hours to re-edit, rethink, and readjust. You obviously can’t control the flow of the show as well, but everyone in our business performs better live. It’s more fun reacting to live stuff.”
That isn’t to say that there isn’t plenty of editing being done in Rio and at the NBC Sports broadcast facility in Stamford, CT. Every edit system is performing at peak output, not only creating athlete profiles and other packages but also repackaging events like gymnastics and diving. Gymnastics has up to six events going on concurrently, so truly live coverage is out of the question.
And diving, for example, makes use of EVS Multireview technology to transmit shots from the venue to the IBC. The production team can pull up the dive needed and also have access to other shots that can be used to bridge the gap in and out of replays. With Multireview, the team at the IBC can look right into the EVS servers inside the truck at the venue without disturbing venue operations.
The IBC Evolution
One new technical addition to the NBC Olympics Rio operation is Control Room X, which is used for events like marathon, cycling, and triathlon.
“We used to have a small truck that would hopscotch from venue to venue, but now we have two Lawo kits that can move four feeds each back to our facility over 1-Gb connection or, in the case of the marathon, eight feeds via both plus two satellite feeds to give us 10 feeds,” Mazza explains. “But we get much higher utilization out of it because we can make use of the IBC router and graphics that are here and keep the complexity at the IBC.”
Over the past 10 years, the onsite NBC Olympics team has been fairly steady in terms of physical space and number of personnel. But the amount of content being offered to viewers in the U.S. has increased by multiples. Much of that growth can be credited to a growing team of NBC Olympics staffers in the U.S.: this year, more than 1,100 people are working in Stamford.
“In 2006, we trialed doing the curling events at home with 12 people, and that successful effort became 500 people in China ’08 and the creation of the Off Tube Factory,” says Mazza. “That grew to 600 at the 2012 London Olympics and then to 1,100 this year, with eight control rooms in Stamford and one at Golf Channel in Orlando and a 10th at Telemundo in Miami.
“Parts of the plant in Rio are more complicated to support the people at home, so it might look much the same here,” he continues, “but there is a lot of engineering and routing being done to support those at-home efforts. I am amazed at the complexity level required for integrating the two plants; it is off-the-charts when you take the scale into account.”