The word that best describes NBC's Olympic production efforts is Herculean. NBC is undertaking a larger production than previous Summer Games—yet with the same amount of crew and gear.
One reason for the increased pressure: The NBC Universal family is giving NBC more outlets for Olympics coverage. For the first time, NBC will be covering every venue and sport—28 in all. That means more live shots, more story packages, more editing.
The cable networks will carry a large amount of live coverage, which delights Dave Mazza, senior vice president of engineering, who heads NBC's Olympics efforts. "People perform better during live shows when they know they only have one shot," he says. "There's more pressure and risk, but the preference is to do it live."
Because of the time difference, prime time coverage on NBC will be tape- delayed, giving the team in Athens a few hours to edit and assemble compelling coverage before sending it to New York. "Everything leaves here finished," says Mazza. "The only things missing are the commercials."
Editing will be handled in two ways: by old-fashioned linear tape and by nonlinear editing, based heavily on Avid nonlinear editing systems.
Raw footage will come in from the venues and be ingested onto an Avid Unity server system with 8 TB of storage capacity. Five multi-seat Avid editing suites will be outfitted with two or three Adrenaline Media Composer systems, an Avid LANShare storage system and an IMX VTR. The linear rooms will have a variety of Sony gear, including BVE-9100 editors, a GPS-8000 audio console, DVS-2000C production switcher, a DME-7000 DVE, four IMX VTRs, a MAV-555 and a 360 Systems audio digital disk recorder.
Joe Lazzari, Avid professional services program manager, is on site with three other Avid support people to ensure smooth operations (other vendors also will have support staff on hand). But says Phil Paully, NBC Olympics director of graphics engineering and operations, "If I walk into a room and the vendor support person isn't sitting down, I've done something wrong. I'd rather see bored support people than chaos."
Paully is a big fan of the Avid system, citing its fast editing and shared storage capacity. "We have a large database of operators who are familiar with Avid," he says. "The majority of them have Avid's Xpress DV [a less sophisticated editing system] at home."
With the games a few days away, Mazza and company are busy. Besides the editing suites in NBC's production facility at the International Broadcast Center, they take care of the editing suites at the diving-and-swimming venue and the track-and-field stadium.
The Unity server is the main repository. Users at the editing station will pull content off and store it on the LANShare.
Feeds from the venues will meet at NBC's central videotape area. It's outfitted with VTRs capable of ingesting content from a number of tape formats, including D3, DVCPRO 25 and 50, DVCam, Digital Betacam, Betacam SX, Umatic, VHS, S-VHS, and even Hi8. Thirty-six Sony IMX e-VTRs will record the incoming feeds and make low-resolution proxies of content to assist with digital asset management.
The real action, however, will be in the graphics-production area. That's where the 8-TB Unity server is located, tied to three Avid Media Composer editors and six Avid NewsCutter ingest seats. A Sony PetaSite robotic tape server is on hand to store content—up to 60 TB worth.
"At the end of the day, each venue will send in a 30-minute chunk of the best material we call a meltdown reel," says Mazza. "That content is ingested into the Unity, and then any Avid tied into the system can access the content via 1GB Ethernet."
Paully considers the 1GB Ethernet an essential addition to the NBC Olympics mix. "The transfer speed between the systems is phenomenal," he says.
Also helping speed the production is a new software patch for the Pinnacle Deko character generators and Thunder still stores. The patch allows the graphics to be dropped into the edited story.
Other graphics and compositing will be completed on Macintosh G5 computers running Quantel eQ and Discreet Flame software. Also in the mix is Quantel's qPaintBox Pro. Plus, 3D graphics will be handled by Alias Wavefront and Maya graphics systems on SGI Tezro computers. "The Macintosh and PC platforms keep getting more powerful," says Mazza, "so a lot of our offline creation happens on them."
The key to production success is streamlining the process for maximum return on investment. The RIBS and JAWS portable facilities (see B&C, 8/2, page 14) will be shipped to Turino, Italy, site of the Winter Games in 2006, once the Olympics in Athens ends.
Many of the editing and graphics systems will be returned to the U.S. to be refurbished. They'll subsequently be used to meet the needs of other NBC divisions and stations. "We don't want a two-year-old model of something or expensive equipment sitting on the shelf depreciating," Mazza says.
Starting later this week, Mazza and his staff will be at the top of their game for 17 straight nights. With six dayparts going on simultaneously, the crews work 12-hour shifts. Sometimes, they stay on air for 10 straight hours.
"It's grueling," says Mazza of the final push to the opening ceremonies.
Once the ceremonies begin, though, a rush of adrenaline will reenergize Team NBC.