Olympics 2010: NBCU's HD Leap Into Vancouver

Broadcaster streamlines new-media approach to Winter Games

NBC Universal’s coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver will represent a big jump in volume from the last two Winter Games—835 hours across its broadcast, cable and digital platforms, compared to 419 hours from Torino, Italy, in 2006 and 375.5 from Salt Lake City in 2002. It will also be the first Winter Games to be produced and broadcast completely in high-definition with multichannel surround sound. But the coverage will actually be generated by a significantly smaller staff and a leaner technical operation, a reflection of current economic realities, technology advances and NBCU’s growing expertise in pulling off these massive events.

NBCU’s Olympics staff in Vancouver will number 2,168, compared to 2,768 in Torino and 3,260 in Salt Lake City. The network’s International Broadcast Center (IBC) will be a third smaller, 50,000 square feet compared to 75,000 square feet four years ago. And after a string of Summer and Winter Games on distant continents, the road to Vancouver “feels like a bit of a breather,” says NBC Olympics senior VP of Engineering Dave Mazza, who will be working his 11th Olympics.

“Honestly, it’s new and different in a good way,” Mazza says. “For the first time since Salt Lake, we’re doing a Games in our own language that we can drive to.”

Mazza’s team has worked to reduce some of the complexity in NBCU’s overall technical plan, particularly in providing streaming and on-demand video coverage for its NBCOlympics.com Website. For Beijing, NBCU created a long-distance, file-based workflow to support its Highlights Factory in New York, which produced on-demand coverage for the Web, cable VOD systems and mobile clip services. It used Omneon MediaGrid servers and ProCast IP transmission technology to digitize content in Beijing and send low-resolution proxy files to producers and editors in New York, who created edit decision lists (EDLs) using the proxies. They then pulled selected clips of SD and HD high-resolution footage over the IP network to create final packages, thus conserving network bandwidth.

On-Site Highlights

For Vancouver, NBCU has located its Highlights Factory on-site at the IBC, which removes the proxy layer and greatly reduces the complexity of producing some 1,000 hours of on-demand coverage.

“That was something we did in China out of necessity, because we couldn’t afford to fly 30 college kids over to help with all the highlight creation,” Mazza says. “Here we can hire local kids who speak our language and know the sports, and do it in Vancouver.”

NBCU will again use MediaGrid servers and ProCast IP technology for the Highlights Factory. A MediaGrid in Vancouver will connect to EVS XT[2] production servers to enable fast access to HD media. Edited content will be sent as 50 Mbps MPEG-2 files over AT&T fiber to a second MediaGrid system in New York, which will pump content to new-media delivery outlets under the direction of NBCU’s MICAH internal distribution system (a combination of Rhozet transcoding and Signiant file acceleration technology).

NBCU has also simplified the operation of its Streaming Factory, which will support 400 hours of live event coverage on NBCOlympics.com. For Beijing, NBCU created its own Streaming Factory in China to encode 40 Web streams of live coverage. For Vancouver, NBCU has contracted with iStreamPlanet to create a Streaming Factory in Las Vegas that will encode 23 video feeds from host broadcaster Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS). The feeds will be sent from Vancouver to Las Vegas over an OC12 fiber link via IP multicast.iStreamPlanet will rely on Microsoft’s Smooth Streaming for Silverlight technology, with encoding from Inlet Technologies, and Akamai’s HD content delivery network to bring it to the online audience.

As it did in Beijing, NBC will again rely on a large network of EVS XT[2] production servers for ingest and playout that are integrated with Avid editors and storage systems, which are used to create finished packages. The system, developed through close integration work between Avid and EVS, connects via Gigabit Ethernet networking. It pushes files between the EVS servers and Avid Unity ISIS storage systems using Avid’s DNxHD codec at a bitrate of 100 Mbps, and also exchanges metadata that can be read by Avid’s Interplay asset management software.

The Avid/EVS workflow will be used at the IBC location and at the mountain venue at Whistler, about 2½ hours from downtown Vancouver. At the IBC, some 20 EVS six-channel XT servers will connect to a 160-terabyte Avid Unity ISIS storage system, an Avid Interplay production asset management system, 16 Avid Media Composer editing systems and six Avid Symphony editing systems. At Whistler, EVS servers will connect to 11 Avid Media Composer editing systems with Avid Unity shared storage. NBC News will also use a 128-terabyte Avid Unity ISIS storage system, Avid Interplay software, 13 Avid Media Composer editing systems, 25 Avid Interplay Assist seats, and six Avid AirSpeed servers for ingest and playout.

NBCU will get the lion’s share of its coverage from OBS, which was created by the International Olympic Committee to serve as host broadcaster beginning with the Beijing Games. OBS will have about 600 cameras, 24 production trucks, and 2,400 personnel across the various venues and the IBC. All of the fiber feeds from the venues are provided by Bell Canada. NBCU’s broadcast feeds will go home to New York via AT&T fiber, with a few satellite links.

In addition to moving to all-HD coverage for the first time, OBS will also be providing an Olympic News Channel, a 24/7 headline news and information service; and an Olympic Data Feed, a metadata information service to aid broadcasters in customizing content.

“We’ll have a very substantial ENG [electronic newsgathering] operation, with more than 20 ENG cameras roaming around supplying live feeds from venues and interviews with athletes,” says OBS Managing Director Manolo Romero, a veteran of 21 Olympics.

Key OBS vendors include Panasonic, which is supplying its P2 HD solid-state cameras, and EVS, which OBS will rely on for ingest, editing and playout needs. Innovations for Vancouver include ultra-high-frame-rate cameras from several vendors and point-of-view cameras mounted on the helmets of freestyle aerial competitors.

NBCU will use more than 100 cameras, all equipped with Canon lenses, to supplement OBS’ coverage. They include Sony HDC-1400, -1500 and -3300 units, and for ENG applications, Sony’s new PDW-F800 XDCAM HD optical-disc camcorders.

Several graphic enhancements and specialized cameras will help Olympic viewers more easily understand the action. For ski jumping, NBCU will use a Sportvision system to place a virtual line in the landing area to mark leading jumps, and speed-skating coverage will superimpose the flag of each skater’s home country and place the skater’s name on the ice to identify the athletes as they change lanes.

NBCU will track the speeds of skaters with specially placed cameras and display each skater’s position on the track with an on-screen graphic, and will clock bobsled, luge and skeleton competitors’ speeds with eight radar guns located at different points along the track.

It is again using the StroMotion and SimulCam technologies invented by Dartfish, a Swiss company specializing in sports video analysis; Sportvision is providing these technologies to NBCU. StroMotion, a strobe-like effect that can break down high-speed tricks into frame-by-frame snapshots, will be used for the snowboard halfpipe and freestyle aerial skiing competitions. SimulCam, which NBCU is now calling Super-Ski, can produce a replay of a skier’s downhill run with a “ghost” effect that superimposes the course of a fellow racer, such as the leader, and shows where each skier gained or lost time.

Mazza says that NBCU will sometimes combine Super-Ski with the feed from an ultra-high-frame-rate camera for dramatic slow-motion replays: “That really lets you see the difference between how one guy and another is carving through a turn—or not carving, for that matter.”

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