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Lords of the rings

Olympic-size effort provides Olympic-class pictures, sounds 1/27/2002 07:00:00 PM Eastern

When the 2002 Winter Olympics open on Feb. 8, NBC will have more than 3,200 full-time and part-time personnel on hand to cover 2,500 athletes. With more than one NBC employee per athlete, viewers should rest assured that, if there's a story to be told, NBC will tell it.

Like the athletes themselves, NBC employees in the Olympics division began working toward the games the moment the flame was extinguished in Sydney in 2000. Primary technology partner Sony and its System Integration division started working on wiring and other changes last summer in San Jose, Calif. That work was completed in late September, with on-site integration beginning Oct. 15.

According to Dave Mazza, vice president, engineering, for NBC Olympics, that work was completed for testing at the International Broadcast Center, where all the broadcasters will be housed, on Dec. 1. This tight turnaround, only 37 days, was half the time it took for integration for the Atlanta Games in 1996.

Tightening the relationship between the Sydney effort and the Salt Lake City effort is that the 2002 Games are the second of five consecutive Olympics that NBC will broadcast. As a result, NBC Olympics is implementing a strategy that uses as much equipment as possible from one Olympics to the next.

For example, the two main studios used are JAWS I and JAWS II, "JAWS" being an acronym for "Just Add Water Studio." Those studios travel from one Olympics to the next, along with 12 RIBS, or "Racks in a Box"—portable platforms that hold 240 equipment racks. And a bar-code–based equipment-tracking system makes it easier to locate equipment needed for editing and production facilities.

Mazza says the initial strategy was to retool after every pair of games because the gap from winter to summer games is almost 28 months, much longer than the 16 months between the summer and winter efforts. As it turns out, the strategy had to be adjusted when the division implemented a host of new equipment, including Sony MVS-8000 production switcher and IMX tape machine, Graham-Patten audio console, and Pinnacle DVE, CG and still-store gear.

"Our hope was to change none of them, but we have to follow the technology curve of when vendors are releasing gear and what producers are asking for based on what they see in the rest of the market," says Mazza. "So we're trying to give the most firepower and make things more user-friendly for production."

With some products used in 2000 at the end of their life cycle, the division had no choice but to add new gear. The tricky part is that it not only had to meet producer demands but also had to be familiar to freelancers and fit into the network's technical strategy.

Also, any new gear often needs to be freed of bugs and must fit easily into the existing infrastructure. An upside for manufacturers is that Mazza and company do a lot of the debugging.

Philip Paully, Olympics graphics director, engineering and operations, points out that one product came into Salt Lake City as revision three. One month later, it has gone through 12 additional revisions. "NBC Olympics engineering will make it work," he explains. "We don't have a choice, because, once the show starts rolling, we have to have enough expertise to make sure we stay on the air. We don't understand the concept of downtime."

Adds Mazza, "Creating and building the NBC Olympics infrastructure is a pretty big sandbox. If we think there is a better way to do something—more powerful, more efficient or more reliable—we can go out and try to make that happen."

An Avid Unity server with 262 hours of storage will act as a central repository for feeds arriving at the graphics facility from the different venues. Six Avid Media Station logging seats will be used to get material into the server, with in and out points marked on each video clip.

"It's a very sensible thing to do," says Paully, "because, once the they tap down, it's done and available to seven other participants on the server. It's a drag-and-drop world for us."

Clips available from one location will make it easier for editors in two Avid editing suites to access the material and assemble highlights, bumpers and other segments. The Media Stations will also work as VTRs for playback to the Quantel equipment so that clips can be dumped into the Henry and composited with 3-D graphics.

Dealing with different manufacturers' equipment and getting everything to easily "talk" with each other remains a challenge, but NBC has created a virtual LAN for file transfers among equipment from different manufacturers, according to Paully. Different switches for Pinnacle, Avid and Quantel gear will be in place, along with five gateways allowing for data to be passed among the switches.

"It allows boxes of a similar nature and file format," Paully explains, "to have extremely fast access to each other.

When it comes to cost savings, the use of ISDN for networking to the venues has become so secure and stable, he says, that the network no longer needs to rent T3 lines, which can cost $100,000 a week. The result is that editors have access to all venue information at their fingertips.

The area of 3-D graphics has also shown improvements. Paully says 3-D has expanded to the point where four SGI Onyx 2 workstations, four SGI O200 render farms and two Octane 2 workstations will be used just for rendering.

"It took us 26 seconds to do a frame in Barcelona off the SGI workstation," he says. "Now we render about 30 frames a second."

The graphics department will have a mix of proven Quantel equipment and newer Pinnacle gear. The Pinnacle CG and still stores provide an example of how the division works in conjunction with the network. "The network hasn't made that same shift," says Mazza. "Now the network will watch how well this works and then decide how they want to proceed."

Pinnacle's Thunder XT still stores, Paully notes, can handle video clips on all four channels.

Like all the broadcasters on-site, NBC will rely heavily on the work done by International Sports Broadcasting (see page 28) for feeds from the 13 venues. NBC's venue coverage will be handled out of 10 mobile units, two SNG vans and an ENG van. There will be a mix of linear and nonlinear editing at the venues and 13 Pinnacle FX-Deko II character generators.

Besides ISB, the crew will be relying heavily on the manufacturers themselves.

Randy Raddatz, director, sourcing, for NBC Olympics, notes that there are three sides to the relationship with vendors: development, implementation and support. "We can talk 14 months out on what type of relationship we want with a vendor, but, to us, a large portion of the relationship is support," he says. "There will be two full-time Avid individuals here. Sony will have 20. Success for them is that they're sitting around drinking coffee and things are running seamlessly."

In the event of problems, there usually won't be time to fix the equipment, and so gear will be swapped out.

Next week will be a big one, particularly for the NBC Olympics employees who spend two years getting ready for basically one night: the opening ceremonies.

"Over that two years, an incredible amount of pressure builds up, and that's the downside of doing the games," says Mazza. "When you do a weekly or nightly television show, each night you're on the air, you have a release valve, and the pressure is over. This pressure builds and builds over two years, and you can imagine the capacity for something going wrong and the willingness to accept it."

There is, of course, the upside, like having a chance to play in an Olympic-size sandbox. And "you can really focus energy," says Mazza, "on making the best 17 nights and days of television that is humanly and technically possible."


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