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At NBC Sports, the ‘Highlights Factory’ Takes Olympics to New Screens

STAMFORD, Conn. – Some Olympics viewers have thrilled to seeing Chloe Kim win a gold medal in snowboarding. Others had their spirits lifted by Mikaela Shiffrin’s slalom victory. For those who yearn for something different, NBC has a runaway walkie-talkie that might prove of interest.

Tucked away in a windowless room in NBC Sports headquarters here., a team of 23 interns, various editors and a handful of supervisors are busy looking for Winter Olympics highlights from Pyeongchang, South Korea, that likely won’t get called out by Mike Tirico.

The sight of a walkie-talkie skittering down a downhill slope as officials tried to catch it was one of the team’s recent finds. One of the interns spotted it and raised the alarm. “Our job is to see everything big and small and determine if it’s worthy of being a clip on any one of our digital platforms,” says Eric Hamilton, director of digital video production for NBC Olympics.

The executive helps oversee a hub that is becoming increasingly vital to NBCUniversal’s Olympic fortunes. His “highlights factory” culls scenes that most TV viewers don’t catch: post-event practices, pre-event conversations, even a collection of snippets of Olympics curlers grabbing snacks on the go. “It’s a joke that we don’t really know whether to say ‘Good morning’ or ‘Good night’ when we come in walk in here,” says Hamilton, pointing to rows of staffers staring at desktop screens while digital clocks point out the time difference between Stamford and Pyeongchang.

The team’s mission isn’t to keep track of sunset or sunrise. As new technology allows viewers of all TV programming increasingly to unhitch themselves from the living-room mainstay, the highlights team’s work is growing more important. It results in short videos for mobile and desktop consumption at a time when NBCU is placing more emphasis on counting viewers no matter what device they use to watch the Olympics.

“We expect that this will be the most-consumed Games across all platforms,” said Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBC Broadcasting and Sports, in January. Some of that consumption isn’t primetime TV programing, and NBCU is tallying up viewership across screens to arrive at the guarantees it has promised to advertisers. Some of that is no doubt driven by the 130 to 150 clips the highlights team produces each day. Indeed, executives originally anticipated producing around 2,000 different clips in total over the course of NBCU’s Winter Olympics broadcast, but the team met that goal five days ago.

The group has access to many raw feeds that don’t show up on TV. If there’s a surprise, come-from-behind winner in a ski race, the team can sift through footage to build a timeline of how the relative unknown went from gone to gold. If one of the Stamford watchers notices a horde of skaters warming up at a practice rink before primetime coverage, the results might prove interesting.

And sometimes, the group’s work is indeed ready for primetime. The aforementioned example of curlers snacking proved appetizing enough to TV producers, who wanted to use it as an interstitial during traditional the traditional TV broadcast.

Culling highlights is only one of many activities taking place at NBC’s Stamford facility, where more than 1000 people are embroiled in a host of tasks meant to complement the activity taking place in South Korea. It’s NBC Sports’ first Winter Olympics in the facility, which the unit moved into in 2012. Other staffers are monitoring 4K broadcasts, and a host of announcers and producers climb into small sound proof booths to do play-by-play, voice-overs and analysis for events taking place half a world away.

In another era, NBC Sports would have set those booths up on the floor of Studio 8H in NBCU’s 30 Rockefeller Center headquarters. That’s usually the home of “Saturday Night Live.” Now, says Ken Goss, senior vice president of remote operations and production planning for NBC Sports, there’s more room to breathe.  NBC Sports did its first Olympics work at the facility, a former Clairol factory, for the Rio Summer Olympics in 2016.

On a Monday night of a recent holiday weekend, the parking lot outside the offices was cordoned off to allow an array of shuttle buses to ferry staffers to and from the site. Inside, the employee cafeteria was open, but tables topped with cookies and fruit were placed every few feet in the cavernous facility, which also houses studios for the cable network NBCSN and for NBC’s “Football Night in America.”

Many eyes may be on NBC’s on-the-ground team in Pyeongchang, but as the business changes, attention should be paid to staffers in Stamford.  “We think we help go beyond the broadcast,” says Hamilton.

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