The Games plan
How's this for an assignment? Every two years, you construct NBC's third-largest facility, smaller only than its New York and Burbank operations. You have to do it in 90 days. Then, you operate it for 36 days, completely dismantle and pack it up in 14 days, transport it halfway around the world in more than 100 shipping containers, and store it for use two years later.
The assignment is Dave Mazza's. As vice president of engineering-Olympics for NBC, the 41-year-old executive is charged with getting all the technology in place for the network's coverage of the Sydney Games this September and the four subsequent Olympics, for which NBC holds the U.S. TV rights.
broadcasting & cable's Glen Dickson talked with Mazza about his preparations for Sydney.
Describe the overall technical philosophy for NBC's production of the Sydney Games.
Before we finished the Atlanta Games, we had secured the rights for the next three Games-2004, 2006 and 2008. So we had five Games ahead of us [counting Salt Lake in 2002]. Our senior management-Randy Falco, president of the network, and Cathy Hurley, senior VP in charge of Olympics-said, "Hey guys, nobody's ever had the chance to do this before. No network has ever had more than one Olympic Games at a time."
So we had a unique opportunity that we felt we could exploit: to take advantage of building an infrastructure that could carry us from one Games to the next. And to minimize the amount of waste, in thrown-away infrastructure, that we typically have when we build a "one-off"-type Olympic facility.
How much, if any, production will be handled in the U.S.?
Very little. In Atlanta, the "virtual IBC" worked great. At the time, we were in the middle of rebuilding some of the infrastructure of 30 Rock. So it made a lot of sense for us to build up 30 Rock-the editing areas, tape areas and graphics areas-and interconnect them with all the fiber-optic connections that AT & T provided for us.
That made perfect sense. Now those same spaces at 30 Rock are busily churning out everyday programming at 30 Rock and actually wouldn't be available if we needed to use them for the Olympics. So that was the unique circumstance in Atlanta that made the virtual IBC a possibility.
In addition to that, the time zones and the price of bandwidth between Sydney and New York wouldn't justify the cost. Trying to do a virtual IBC from Sydney, we couldn't justify it. Both because those areas at 30 Rock had already been built and because the bandwidth from Sydney to 30 Rock was so much more expensive than, obviously, a domestic Games.
Describe your transmission path from Sydney back to the U.S.
We're airing just a little over 400 hours of programming from Sydney on several outlets, both the network and CNBC and MSNBC. So what we have in place are four paths back: a primary and a backup for both the broadcast and the cable transmissions. And then we have an 8-megabit return feed for sending two ways with athletes' families or parents back to Sydney. So we've got four paths coming to the U.S. and one path going to Sydney.
The paths from Sydney are all using Sony MPEG compressors, and they're running a combination of 40 megabits and 20 megabits. The primaries are running at 40, the backups at 20.
So everything hits the East Coast before it goes back out.
Yes. Commercial integration for both the broadcast stream and the cable stream are being done at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. And we are sending back finished streams from Sydney. Unlike we've done in the past, when we're doing international Games, we are feeding back the completed, fully packaged show-less the commercials-from Sydney. So the packages will be fed in order, live, to the East Coast; in New York, they'll add the commercials to them and put it out on the network, live.
I understand NBC is going to be relying on the host broadcaster's feeds more than ever before.
Yes. In the past-or at least in Atlanta-we would have had about 14 or 15 mobile units. Now, we have eight. We are much more reliant on the host broadcaster this time. We've developed a small pack of equipment-again, from our partners at Sony-which allows us to go to 10 different venues. These things are portable. We take the clean and the dirty feed from the host and a wide shot and simply add one of our own cameras. In the commentary booth, we have a small digital video switcher from Sony, a small analog audio console, and an intercom system. We basically use that single camera, plus our own announcers, to supplement the host feed and transmit that back digitally to the IBC. So that gives us presence at 10 more venues without any mobile units.
We have the capability to cover over 35 sports, and we have eight mobile units. So it's very different for us. We have a lot of hours to fill. We have the two cable outlets, which gobble up a lot of programming. So you'll certainly see a lot more coverage back from Sydney than you've ever seen before on NBC.
How many people will work on NBC's Olympic broadcasts?
I think we have almost 2,400 people working on the Games. Now, many of those people are runners, drivers, caterers. But I think there's roughly 600 engineers, and I'm not sure how many production folks. We travel with about 1,400 people to Australia and hire another thousand when we get there. So it's a huge logistical effort.
Describe what one of your days will be like during the Games.
It's kind of crazy, because of the clocks' being turned upside down. I think a typical day for the broadcast crew, which I'll be looking after, is from about probably 6 a.m., and we go on the air at 10 a.m. in Sydney, which is 7 p.m. New York time. So prime time actually starts airing from Sydney at 10 a.m. in the morning. That daypart goes all the way through to 5 p.m. in Sydney, which is 2 a.m. in New York. And then you've got the whole evening session of competition in Sydney, which is going on until about 11:30 p.m. And our production team has to stay around till the end of the competition, to figure out what instructions to give people for editing for the next morning-really, evening-prime time show. So the time zone really turns your world upside down. But everybody will be working at least a 12-hour shift, and a lot of folks will probably be closer to 16 hours.
[NBC Sports'] Dick Ebersol has told us to go to Sydney well-rested and in shape because, when you get there, it's not going to be a vacation. So there's not a person on the crew that will work less than 12 hours. And a lot of people are going to be working closer to 16 hours. It's pretty grueling.