The Olympic Games dazzle viewers with the skill and courage of the athletes, who ignore danger and the stress of performing in front of a global audience to accomplish astonishing feats.
The games are also an exercise in stress management for NBC Universal, which is feeding coverage of those athletes into American homes. Not only are the Olympics a mind-boggling exercise in logistics, but they leave the broadcast team torn between two masters: The need to innovate, and the desire to avoid a screw-up in front of an audience of perhaps 50 million viewers.
“It’s a conflict,” admits David Mazza, senior VP and chief technical officer, NBC Sports Group and NBC Olympics. “It is a challenge to try to balance the new stuff and the stability that you’d like to have. We’ve done a good job of it in the past but it is one thing we talk about every day, risk versus reward.”
Mazza says “If we just did this safe thing that was tried and true and totally bulletproof, our lives would be a heck of a lot easier. But that never happens. It doesn’t happen on the production side because of the desire to innovate on the screen, and it doesn’t happen on the behind-the-scenes side because we’re constantly needing to produce more content than we produced before.”
NBCU is warier about incorporating new technology into the Winter Games than the Summer Games, says Mazza, because the planning cycle is shorter from Summer to Winter games (about 17 months) than from Winter Games to Summer Games (typically around 27 months). “So with that cycle we tend not to change as much of the equipment because we don’t really have enough time to make it tried-and-true, and sort of road-test it.” Behind-the-scenes gear in Sochi will largely be the same as in London.
There will likely be fewer people in Sochi, though, than in Vancouver four years ago, even though Sochi will be the first Winter Olympics where every minute of competition will be streamed or televised live to the U.S. NBC’s contingent in Sochi will number some 2800 — about 1500 in production and the rest in support — but Mazza says their numbers shrink with each games, as the network looks to cut costs and simplify travel in the face of increasing rights fees and production costs.
“The more stuff we leave at home,” says Mazza, “the more lines we have to have back and forth and the trickier it is to route all those feeds, especially coming out of a place like Russia, where Americans have never done live television before.”
Fewer people in Sochi means more people working back in the U.S. There will be 55 high-definition feeds going from Sochi to the NBC Sports HQ in Stamford, Connecticut, where an additional team of 400 will be working on Olympics coverage. “It adds to the risk and adds to the complexity but we spend the better part of those 16 months testing and making sure we have diverse paths of redundancy.”
NBC’s media asset management system has evolved to the point where — if all the feeds go through as planned — editors back in Stamford will be able to remote-control some of the digital gear in Sochi and start cutting highlights packages for TV, web and mobile as soon as two minutes after a live feed begins. There are 14 HD feeds from the U.S. back to Sochi.
While new technology is introduced only gradually behind the scenes, NBCU’s embraces more risk when it comes to what viewers see. Mazza says: “We’re trying to be creative and innovative and show people new stuff and keep up with everybody else. Because in order to be innovative you’re going to have to be out there on the forefront of technology.”
NBC’s Sochi coverage will particularly advance “virtual” technology — real-time displays of such data as a competitor’s speed, exact location, difference from the leader’s time and G-forces the competitor is experiencing.
That kind of technology is crucial for helping casual viewers, who might only watch bobsled, Alpine skiing and speed skating every four years, understand the nuances of the sport they’re watching.
For example, in some speed skating events it is difficult for even experienced fans to tell who’s ahead at a glance. Virtual enhancements solve that problem, showing who’s ahead and how fast the competitors are going. Likewise, in Alpine skiing, the “Simulcam” superimposes video of one racer on video of another, so the viewer can see how differences in their lines or body positions helped one gain time over the other.
NBC used to have to do all such enhancements itself, but the Olympic Broadcasting Service, which supplies neutral pool video to rights-holders worldwide, has improved and now provides many such virtual enhancements, says Mazza.
“The better their coverage has become both for base coverage and enhancements, the more that’s allowed us to focus our energies on just the last five percent, if you will, some of the virtual enhancements. It also allows us to focus on the U.S. stories rather than having to tell all of the combined stories to the rest of the world.”
Mazza has worked on 13 Olympics, some as a technical director but nine or ten in his current position. “I can’t say any one of them I was sitting back thinking ‘We’ve got this figured out,’ and bored. We’re on edge up until the moment of closing ceremonies.
“But we’ve learned how to live within it and I think most of the people that do it actually love it, and after the exhaustion wears off at the end of the games they’re usually rarin’ to go for the next one — after a few months of recovery.”
(pictured: Matt Lauer in Sochi)