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.”