NBC's Olympic coverage from Beijing should make technophiles leap for joy, both for the production quality and sheer volume of action.
The 2008 Summer Games are the first where all sports will be covered with high-definition cameras, thanks to a commitment by the Chinese government and host broadcaster Beijing Olympic Broadcasting (BOB) to have a fully hi-def infrastructure in place. And NBC will be supplementing the HD coverage, available on NBC broadcast affiliates and cable networks CNBC HD, USA HD and Universal HD, with an unprecedented amount of broadband coverage. Some 2,200 hours of live streaming broadband coverage of 25 sports will run, plus another 3,000 hours of on-demand video including highlights and encores.
That's a big change from the 2006 Torino Games, where a little more than half of the sports were natively produced in HD and the rest were shot in 16:9 standard-definition and upconverted to HD for NBC's broadcasts; also, only two hours of coverage was streamed live on the Web. NBC has revamped its 75,000-square-foot International Broadcast Center (IBC) to be totally HD, retiring its standard-definition routing switcher and much of the SD peripheral equipment, and has built a robust new Web transmission and production infrastructure for NBCOlympics.com.
“With the quick turnaround between [the 2004 Athens Games] and Torino, we didn't have enough time to retool [for HD],” says Dave Mazza, NBC Olympics senior VP of engineering. “So we basically added HD on top of our SD systems, and that gave us the complexity of two layers. When the host broadcaster went all-HD, we pretty much eliminated the SD layer, and retooled everything.”
A significant technology shift for Beijing is moving from Sony HDCAM tape to Sony XDCAM HD optical disc as NBC's “workhorse format” for ENG-type acquisition and editing. NBC had been waiting for the “phase 3” version of XDCAM HD with 4:2:2 color sampling, eight audio channels and 50 megabit-per-second recording before moving to the optical-disc format. It didn't get test machines until February, and took delivery of around 170 XDCAM HD recording decks and 35 PDW-700 camcorders on June 1. That “was a little nerve-wracking,” says Mazza, who notes that NBC will continue to use some HDCAM tape decks in its traditional edit suites.
NBC will have more than 100 Sony cameras in Beijing, but the lion's share of coverage will come from BOB, which is using some 60 mobile units and a mix of HD cameras, including Thomson LDK hard cameras and Panasonic P2 solid-state camcorders, to cover every sport in 1080-line-interlace HD at 50 hertz. NBC will mainly use its cameras to supplement BOB's coverage of major sports such as track and field.
Avid is supplying a Unity ISIS shared storage system with some 224 terabytes of storage, Interplay workflow management software, and 34 seats of Symphony Nitris and Media Composer nonlinear editing software. The Avid systems will connect to XT servers from EVS, which will be used by NBC to ingest live feeds (NBC has a total of 48 XT servers).
Avid has engineered a workflow that will allow the 100 megabit-per-second HD video from the EVS units to be seamlessly converted to Avid's DNxHD mezzanine compression format (operating at 120 Mbps for 50 Hz production, instead of the typical 145 Mbps). This allows EVS' IPDirector systems to transfer EVS clips directly to the Avids for editing and for finished Avid clips to be pushed to EVS for playback to air.
NBC is also using Chyron graphics systems, Linear Acoustics' UPMAX:Neo audio upmixers, Snell & Wilcox Alchemist standards converters, and Tandberg MPEG-4 advanced compression gear for all the network's transmission needs. AT&T is handling all the fiber transmissions back to the U.S., and NBC will be encoding the HD MPEG-4 feeds at 20 Mbps, which lets it fit two feeds in one 45 Mbps DS-3 fiber link.
Besides HD, the number of outbound feeds has been the biggest change in NBC's Olympics production, Mazza says—in Sydney there were four feeds home, in Athens 13, and in Beijing over 100.
That increase is driven mainly by the explosion in new-media distribution. NBC has created a “Streaming Factory” in Beijing that uses HP computers and Digital Rapids' Windows Media Video encoding cards to create 40 Web-dedicated streams. It has also developed “Highlights Factory,” a file-based workflow based on servers and IP transmission technology from Omneon, which lets producers and editors in the U.S. easily access content from Beijing to produce on-demand coverage for the Web, cable VOD systems and mobile clip services. The content created by Highlights Factory is transcoded and packaged for various forms of new-media distribution using AnyStream's Velocity software.
The video player for NBC-Olympics.com is based on Microsoft's Silverlight technology and is designed to provide high image quality along with innovative features, such as the ability to watch two streams simultaneously in a picture-in-picture mode and a mosaic mode that will display four live streams at once. Since NBC is taking BOB's live feed for the Web streams, the coverage will be relatively straightforward with little disruption from advertising.
In addition to up to 20 concurrent live streams for 2,200 hours of coverage, NBC-Olympics.com will give access to 3,000 hours of on-demand video, including full-event replays with DVR functionality; highlights; recaps; commentator analysis and athlete profiles. Interactive features include real-time results, a personalized viewing guide, a medal tracker and blogs.
Limelight Networks, the primary content delivery network (CDN) for the Website, has added 20 terabytes of server storage to accommodate the video, and executives there are prepared for the Olympic streaming to set an all-time record for demand. NBC execs are optimistic that their underlying infrastructure will be up to the Olympic test.
“None of us has a crystal ball, but we've done everything we can to anticipate the traffic and volumes,” says Perkins Miller, senior VP of digital media for NBC Sports and NBC Olympics. “The great thing about the structure of this is that there are multiple sports at multiple times, so that spreads the load somewhat. I think we've got a lot of good factors working in our favor.”