Beijing 2022 Reflections: As Paralympics Begin, NBC Olympics' Todd Donovan on Beijing Operations
The 2022 Paralympics are about to begin, and NBC Sports will air more than 230 hours of coverage, including a first: three hours on NBC Primetime. Todd Donovan, VP, engineering technology, NBC Olympics, has been in Beijing overseeing the technology side of the IBC operations.
First, how are things going at the IBC? Can you give a quick overview of how it is scaled back in terms of personnel and operations?
It’s going quite well, perhaps better than it should be. That’s a testament to the incredibly talented and experienced team that NBC Olympics has assembled over the years.
The at-home team in Stamford basically doubles that in Beijing — even including the venues and IBC combined. The IBC is roughly 50% of the population that had been originally planned. As we started to get an understanding of the operating conditions in Beijing in the closing days of the Tokyo Games, it became clear that we needed to rethink the approach and reduce our levels.
We kept the Primetime studio in the host city but shifted the control room and its edit and playback workflows wholly back to SPOC [Sports Production Operations Center in Stamford, CT] for the first time. While we built three studios with a range of sizes, all daypart hosting was shifted home, and we’re using the studios for athlete interviews across our networks and platforms. Without the Primetime control room at the IBC, we were able to simplify BOC since every signal for prime didn’t need to stop in the IBC. The production-communications hub shifted from the IBC to SPOC, with an annex at the IBC to handle venue and IBC needs.
How has the massive at-home effort impacted operations at the IBC? Has it changed the role a bit, given that, historically, the IBC control room has served as the core hub?
BOC has traditionally been the switching point for every feed between the venues and the U.S. domestic operations, very much a hub model. Every signal has been available as video and could be touched by BOC and used in the production-control rooms and edit facilities. We’ve had some unique situations in the past where a venue [feed] would pass through the IBC only as an encoded transport stream. That shift accelerated to become the primary design for the revised Beijing 2022 design. Instead of being the primary junction, the IBC BOC became a local stop as the overwhelming majority of feeds expressed as encoded transport streams directly from the venues to their venue-control rooms at SPOC. The IBC can decode individual feeds if needed to assist with troubleshooting or monitoring.
How did the accelerated timeline between Games impact your team’s operations and IBC plans? When Tokyo wrapped up, did stuff immediately head over to Beijing?
Since the delay of Tokyo 2020, we definitely understood we had less than six months between the closing of Tokyo and the opening of Beijing. Most of our groups started in China later than originally scheduled as it took time to navigate the official “playbook” rules on how to operate in Beijing in a pandemic.
The Beijing playbook rules were more restrictive than those in Tokyo. Most notable were the introduction of a complete and pervasive “closed-loop management,” or bubble, that ran from January through March and a 21-day adaptive quarantine with no co-mingling between travel cohorts before the bubble started. NBC’s first travelers to set up infrastructure arrived in mid October, with our implementation team joining in early November and our first engineers arriving in December for initial testing. The balance of the team arrived throughout January for all areas. Throughout the fall, we were revising and shifting workflows home and re-examining staffing. Our equipment was shipped from Tokyo to meet those travelers’ arrivals.
In Tokyo, you mentioned the balance between giving new tools for storytelling and minimizing risk. Given the tight turnaround and increased risk, are there any new tools that have been deployed?
We refined everything we did in Tokyo: extensive friends and family interactions, HDR production, and host-studio augmented reality, plus new challenges.
Beijing 2022 became arguably the most complex work-from-home assignments ever attempted. We had teams that have always worked “hand-in-glove” together in the Olympic City at the IBC or at the venue [but] were now separated by 7,000 miles and a 13-hour time difference. Also with the addition of a Super Bowl that, for the first time ever, was during the middle weekend of the Games, our team was literally always on the move and spread everywhere. Keeping people connected was a lifeline.
At the IBC, we created a “production gallery” for senior production personnel in Beijing who needed to be in the Primetime production-control room at SPOC. Functioning like a virtual back-deck, we reflected certain multi-ways (off-air, prompter, graphics channels, switcher preset, etc.) around the world and added in local sources, giving producers access to Beijing-based NBC and OBS content, SPOC-produced venues, playback channels, and edit-room outputs — really anything they needed to do their jobs. Connected with intercom panels and a video telepresence system, teams on either end stayed connected.
What have been the biggest challenges, and has anything surprised you with respect to things going better than expected?
Between the Omicron surge around the world during our biggest travel waves and the particularly sensitive COVID PCR tests employed by the Chinese officials, getting travelers to their assignments in Beijing was much tougher than anyone expected.
One of the biggest challenges is, nearly every department and every skill is missing a significant number of people, and that is where we found the depth in our team calling on previous experiences, battlefield promotions, on-the-job training, creative multitasking, and just everyone pitching in. It took the typical “get-it-done” culture of the Olympics to a whole new level. I think we’ve collectively done our jobs so well that the audience has no idea the hoops we’ve been doing behind scenes.
How has your team been performing under difficult circumstances?
NBC Olympics has an amazing team, and they’ve truly risen to the occasion in so many ways. It’s difficult to state how difficult these circumstances have been. Some groups had to experience two 21-day adaptive quarantines in order to complete their work on time and be able to work with folks arriving at a later date for the next step of the build. Being in the bubble under pandemic-driven playbook rules completely alters the way we do our jobs, not to mention restricts, if not eliminates, much of what draws people to the Olympics. Our people have done their best to find the fun in what we do, support one another, and keep spirits high.
Every Olympics is unique to the circumstances in the host country, and that’s even more true here at Beijing 2022. I am so proud of this world-class team across NBC Olympics and Sports.