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NBCU Readies Tech-Savvy Studio to Attract Viewers During Winter Olympics

NBCUniversal is getting ready to present more than 2,400 hours of coverage of the Winter Olympics from Pyeongchang, South Korea. A good chunk of it might look as if it’s originating from a house carved out of the side of a mountain – and that’s by design.

NBC Sports’ primetime and late-night studio coverage of the massive event will originate from a 3500 square-foot geodesic dome set, designed to appear carved out of the PyeongChang mountainside and showcase the natural beauty of South Korea. The studio will feature a 40-foot by 16-foot LED wall, complemented by 18 55-inch high-definition monitors. The facility provides   space for a main anchor desk, interview areas, a news update desk, and more than 15 different stand up locations for host Mike Tirico to deliver analysis of the 18 days of coverage (An artist’s rendering of the facility, which is still under construction, is depicted above).

The studio will  also have an additional facility – on the roof. This 1000 square-foot area, made to look like a winter lodge, will feature windows overlooking the ski jumping venue at Alpensia Ski Resort as well as panoramic views of the Taebaek Mountains.

“We are using more technology than we have in the past,” said Michael Sheehan, coordinating director, Olympics production, at NBC Sports Group, in an interview. “We don’t want to do the expected, what you would traditionally have in a studio.” The LED wall will “pretty much work as the window out in the geodesic dome, and we will put various landscapes in there. We can use it as an editorial guide and show headshots, videos of the players,” he added. The high-definition monitors will “hang from the ceiling and look like shards of ice.” At some point during broadcasts, said Sheehan, those screens can be utilized to look as if “snow is cascading into the studio.” The facility is designed by HD Studio and Bryan Higgason.

NBCUniversal has good reason to make its broadcast center as hard to turn away from as possible. NBCU, owned by Comcast, is in the midst of a $4.4 billion rights deal that lets it cover the Olympics in the U.S. through 2020, and has already agreed to pay $7.75 billion for broadcast rights to the Olympic Games between 2021 and 2032. And yet, changes in the way people access their video entertainment has blown ripples into linear viewership of the massive event. Overall viewership for the company’s 2016  broadcast of the Rio Summer Olympics was off 18% from its 2012  broadcast of the Summer Games from London. Even so, NBCU was able to meet advertiser guarantees by granting sponsors extra commercial time, and came away from Rio with more than $1.2 billion in ad sales  -and approximately $250 million in profit. NBCU has already said it expects to generate an ad-revenue increase in the “low double digits” percentage range above the approximately $800 million it secured from its coverage of the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.

Despite the time difference, NBCU expects to show a healthy amount of live coverage during primetime hours, said Jim Bell, president of NBC Olympics Production & Programming, in an interview. “The marquee events – skiing, figure skating – all take place during daylight hours, which is live in primetime,” he explained. Just as U.S. viewers got to see Michael Phelps swim live in primetime during the company’s 2008 broadcast from Beijing, Bell said, “in PyeongChang, we sure hope to see Lindsey Vonn and Shaun White compete for the gold” in similar evening broadcasts.

NBCU expects to use a total of 13 different studio sets for coverage of the 2018 Winter Games across NBC, NBCSN, CNBC, USA Network, NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app. Coverage each day will originate from a studio in the Gangneung Coastal Cluster at Olympic Park, the site of figure skating, hockey, speed skating, and curling competitions. This will be the home of all primetime, daytime and late night coverage on NBCSN, and will feature a 30-foot by 30-foot outdoor skating rink that will be used for demonstrations and stand up interviews  – a first for NBCU’s Olympic broadcasts. Studio sets will also be located at NBC Olympics’ headquarters in Stamford, Conn., where five studios will be dedicated to hockey, figure skating, curling and digital coverage.

Executives are conscious of the increasing number of hours of coverage being offered in each Olympics, and eager to keep things varied for viewers, said Sheehan. “Depending on the day, depending on the sport, depending on the feel, we can mix it up,” he said.

And while NBCU is focused on the task at hand – the geodesic dome studio was 90% complete was crews broke for the holidays – the company is also considering new ideas for future broadcasts, said Bell. One concept being mulled, he said, would “break out of the set model” and, perhaps, be utilized at NBCU’s 2020 broadcast of Tokyo’s Summer Olympics, where the company can “really take advantage of the city and maybe takes hosts out and move them around to different locations.” Since Tokyo is such a “visual city,” said Bell, and because technology around remote broadcasts is improving, the idea could create interesting new visuals – and give rise to new challenges, like how to broadcast in the midst of a crowded metropolis. “We are a long way off from making any firm decisions,” added Bell.

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