Technology

NBC's Uphill Race for Olympic Gold

Financial results will depend heavily on the new infrastructure it is building to produce the games 4/02/2012 12:01:00 AM Eastern

Why NBC’s Technical Infrastructure Matters

Several aspects of the infrastructure NBCUniversal is building to produce and distribute the London Games will play a key role in helping the company recoup its hefty investment in Olympics rights:

• Quantity: The infrastructure is being designed to handle, store, process and deliver more content than ever before. In addition to its own feeds, NBC will have access to the 5,600 hours of HD feeds produced by OBS, up from more than 5,000 during Beijing, which could offer more opportunities for new revenues.

• Quality: Beijing was the first all-HD Games, but the London Games could be one of the bestproduced Olympics on record. While NBC won’t be unveiling some of its whiz-bang production tech until the last minute, the host broadcaster is providing uncompressed HD feeds from London venues and is using more HD cameras and super slo-motion cameras, as well as improved virtual graphics. And 3D afficionados can also look forward to more than 200 hours of coverage.

• Cross-platform plays: NBC has cut deals with YouTube and other vendors that will supply technologies to simplify the process of delivering more content to online and mobile platforms, and potentially boost revenues by attracting younger viewers.

• Cost containment: The beefed up infrastructure for handling more content is also designed to streamline workflows and make it possible to reduce the number of staff required in London.

Comcast is heading for the starting line in its first
Olympic games as the owner of NBCUniversal.
NBCU has been working overtime to build a new
broadcast infrastructure for the 2012 London Games that
will play a key role in what promises to be a very difficult
race for a gold-medal performance.

NBCU faces an uphill battle to recover
the record $1.18 billion rights fee it
paid for the 2012 London Games—up
from the $893 million NBC paid for
the rights to televise the 2008 Beijing
Games—especially if it wants to avoid
the hefty $223 million loss suffered for
the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games. It
will also have to construct a technical
infrastructure that can attract new audiences
and create additional revenue
from multiple platforms. And it will
have to contain the costs of operating
in one of the world’s most expensive
cities.

NBC won’t be releasing specific plans
for Olympic coverage on the various
NBCU channels and digital platforms
for a couple of months. But a close look
at the infrastructure the network is
creating for its Olympic feeds provides
many insights into both the company’s
plans and its prospects.

For starters, executives stress that
Comcast has been extremely supportive.
“The support and enthusiasm for
what we do and what we are creating
has been as much or maybe even better
than [former NBC parent company]
GE, which is saying a lot,” notes John
Fritsche, senior VP, operations, at NBC
Olympics.

And thanks to the investment, NBC
is creating a substructure that will allow
it to handle the additional content
and expanded digital distribution demanded by these multiplatform times.

Much of the new coverage will draw
heavily on technologies deployed for the
2008 Beijing Games, and then modified
and improved for the Vancouver Winter
Games. In Beijing, NBC set up what it calls
a Streaming Factory to deliver a record
2,200 hours of live, online content, and a
Highlights Factory to handle some 3,000
hours of on-demand content.

During the Beijing Games, this system
allowed NBC teams in the United States to
process, edit and distribute a lot of the material
by accessing lower-resolution proxy files, a strategy that saved bandwidth costs,
reduced the price tag of sending people to
China, and sped up the editing and distribution
of content.

In London, NBC will be using Sony for
ingest systems, Omneon for storage and
Avid’s media asset management system to
take in feeds from the venues, just as it did
in Beijing. But this time around, teams in
both London and New York will
have access to both high-resolution
HD files and proxy files, says Dave
Mazza, senior VP of engineering for
NBC Olympics.

During the games, AT&T will
supply NBCU with a 10-gigabit
connection from London, up from
the 2-gigabit connection in Beijing.

“That will allow us to
replicate a lot
of the higherresolution files
to New York,
which we didn’t do before and is
taking out several steps in the work-flow,” Mazza notes.

This infrastructure for rapidly handling
and distributing content will also complement
some very impressive facilities,
including a 50,000 square-meter International
Broadcast Center being built by
the host broadcaster, Olympic Broadcast
Services London. Overall OBS, which supplies
feeds to 204 broadcasters around the
world, plans to produce 5,600 hours of HD
content from all the events. (See “OBS: London
2012’s Host With the Most,”.)

While NBC has not detailed the specific
number of hours it will be handling, it has
committed to offering all the events live on
either TV or online. “There won’t be much
that will be left on the cutting-room floor,”
Mazza says.
How this content will be divided up
between NBCU’s various channels, VOD,
online and mobile platforms won’t be announced
until late May or June. In Beijing,
the company produced 2,200 hours of
live-streamed feeds, but in Vancouver NBC
changed the windowing so that many online
streams were delayed until after they
aired on TV.

YouTube’s New Game

Regardless of how much content is actually
streamed live, the London operations
are clearly designed to handle an increased
volume of Web and digital distribution.

NBC will be using Forbidden Technologies’
FORscene platform to encode content
in the cloud, simplifying the process of delivering
content to myriad mobile devices,
and it has partnered with Google’s YouTube
to supply both the online video player and
streaming technologies.

This will help with both costs and revenue.
The Olympics content will be promoted
on YouTube’s front page, no doubt
also encouraging users to head to the
NBCOlympics.com pages and potentially
boosting the number of younger viewers.
The YouTube deal will also reduce the costs
of creating NBC’s streaming infrastructure.

Another important aspect of the effort to
streamline workflows and get content to
as many platforms as possible is the new
Sony Media Backbone system set to manage
work! ows and file-based delivery systems.
“It can peer into each part of the process,
from the content being ingested in London,
replicated in New York, edited wherever,
and then conformed and prepared to be
transcoded into whatever flavor it needs to
be in,” Mazza says.

NBC plans to get the lion’s share of its
coverage from OBS, images it will customize
and enhance with its cameras and
feeds, allowing the network to focus on
U.S. athletes and events headed to primetime.
“Gymnastics, track and field, aquatics,
swimming and diving, and beach volleyball
are probably the venues with our
largest presence,” Fritsche says.

For that effort, NBC will have four mobile
trucks from NEP Visions in London, as
well as two other trucks from outside vendors
at major venues. It will also put Sony
camcorders equipped with Canon lenses at
various venues and studios.

Other key vendors include Omneon for
storage, Cisco for networking technologies,
Ericsson for encoders, Avid for editing,
Chyron for graphics, Calrec for audio
consoles and Snell for standards converters.

At 75,000 square feet, this year’s broadcast
operation inside the International
Broadcast Centre (IBC) will be about the
same size as the one in Beijing. But it will
also house NBC News, which had a separate
facility in 2008.

“We’ve scrunched it down by about 20%
so we could bring our news guys into the
IBC footprint,” Mazza notes.

Combating Logistical
Nightmares

Besides helping the network get more
content to more platforms, the London
infrastructure, which makes it possible for
work to be done in both the U.K. and the
U.S., is also designed to help control costs.
“We are trying to contain costs on travel
and the logistics side because London is a
very expensive city,” Mazza says.

Fritsche adds that they also face a number
of logistical issues created by London’s
ancient, narrow streets and the heightened
security for this year’s games.

“Security is an operational issue because
it really does determine access to the venues,”
Fritsche says. “Because we expect
tighter security in London, we are making
sure that our people stay as close to the
venue as possible and that they have time
to get through security.”

Another big issue is the Queen’s Diamond
Jubilee, which runs between June
2 and 5, marking 60 years in the reign of
Elizabeth II. Access to a number of venues
will be limited until after that event, leaving
NBC, OBS and others with a tight schedule
for completing facilities before the start of
the games on July 27.

“From a logistical and engineering point
of view, it is going to be a challenge for us
and the host broadcaster,” Fritsche says.
“But the upside is where these venues are
located. When you look at having beach
volleyball in 10 Downing Street’s backyard
or gymnastics in North Greenwich and all
the other great venues, then it’s clear that
it’s going to be worth every bit of the angst
we are all going to be going through to
make it happen.”

Why NBC’s Technical Infrastructure Matters

Several aspects of the infrastructure NBCUniversal is building to produce and distribute the London Games will play a key role in helping the company recoup its hefty investment in Olympics rights:

• Quantity: The infrastructure is being designed to handle, store, process and deliver more content than ever before. In addition to its own feeds, NBC will have access to the 5,600 hours of HD feeds produced by OBS, up from more than 5,000 during Beijing, which could offer more opportunities for new revenues.

• Quality: Beijing was the first all-HD Games, but the London Games could be one of the bestproduced Olympics on record. While NBC won’t be unveiling some of its whiz-bang production tech until the last minute, the host broadcaster is providing uncompressed HD feeds from London venues and is using more HD cameras and super slo-motion cameras, as well as improved virtual graphics. And 3D afficionados can also look forward to more than 200 hours of coverage.

• Cross-platform plays: NBC has cut deals with YouTube and other vendors that will supply technologies to simplify the process of delivering more content to online and mobile platforms, and potentially boost revenues by attracting younger viewers.

• Cost containment: The beefed up infrastructure for handling more content is also designed to streamline workflows and make it possible to reduce the number of staff required in London.

 

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