The 2002 Olympic Winter Games have inspired pride in the minds of both American and international viewers. This year marked the second time in six years that the Olympics were held on American soil, and set new standards of performance and technical competence.
A core of dedicated engineers, mostly from NBC, worked diligently in the background to make the Games a success.
Let's look into the technology behind this year's Olympic broadcasts and meet three of the key people who helped make it happen. It's a story of challenges, choices and dedication.
An Olympic broadcast is probably the most complex television event ever attempted. David Mazza, vice president of engineering for the NBC Olympics, says “The Olympics is like having 16 Super Bowl games going on at the same time.” This year, his team helped produce a total of 375 hours of Olympic coverage.
Broadcasting the Olympics requires a whole lot more than a few trucks parked next to a skating rink. In fact, planning for the Olympic broadcasts took two years of full-time work by a core group of about 100 NBC engineering, production and administration people.
The 2000 Sydney Olympics marked the first of five consecutive Olympic broadcasts for NBC. With an exclusive U.S. rights contract covering every Olympics through 2008, the network is in a unique position to select and then reuse technology for multiple games. Even so, it was only 16 months from the end of the Sydney Olympics to the start of the 2002 Winter Games.
For the NBC crew, many elements had to be specified two years in advance. “We have to define to the host broadcaster so many [technical] things long before we know what we'll be doing at each venue, the amount of van space, even the number of phones we'll need,” Mazza said.
The Olympics broadcast involves two broadcast centers. One center serves the NBC feeds and the other the international feeds. The host broadcaster — International Sports Broadcasting (ISB) handles most of the origination of competition coverage, passing off clean video to other countries so they can add their own announcers and graphics as desired.
This year, a U.S. high-definition feed was added to the mix. Said Mazza, “We are very excited to have found a way to bring a true HDTV Olympic feed into American living rooms. With the help of International Sports Broadcasting and HDNet, NBC and the NBC DTV affiliates will broadcast six to eight hours a day of original HD programming and then repeat the same throughout each 24-hour block. This will be 1080i with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound with no upconversion. It should look and sound spectacular!”
In addition to the core NBC staff, the broadcast team includes 600 freelance engineers, camera operators, tape, CG, still store operators and editors. Add another 600 producers, about 1000 support staff and hundreds of local folks and that's a lot of technical people to train, feed, house and support. Perhaps most critical, about 2300 of these people don't show up for their work until the Games are only four to seven days away. That means all of their training must take place very quickly.
One key to getting things up and going quickly is the use of pre-packaged technology. First used at the Sydney Olympics, racks-in-a-box (RIBS) are complete systems prewired with equipment rack mounted and ready for interfacing. This technology allows complete systems to be built and tested long before they ever arrive on site. They are then simply connected to the rest of the broadcast chain once on site. (See April 2000, Broadcast Engineering for an article on the Sony/NBC RIBS system.)
New vs. proven technology
An Olympic broadcast must not fail. The loss of even seconds of a program feed could result in the entire world not seeing the winning goal or the finish of a highly competitive race.
For once-in-a-lifetime events like the Olympics, the choice of technology becomes more than a little complicated. The trade-off between what has proven reliable before, and new and less tried technology, is crucial.
The NBC staff settled on a two-phase method for technology selection. First, the viewer must perceive the change as a benefit. Second, on the financial and operational side, any new technology selected cannot be at the relative end of its life cycle.
While proven equipment and technology may be the easy choice, for other equally important reasons, that technology may not be the best choice.
The network often uses the Olympics as a testing ground for new technology. If something works well in this high-pressure environment, then other stations know it's probably a safe purchase for them.
It's a huge issue to bring a new product to the Olympics, but because the Olympics uses a closed-loop system, it's easier to roll out new technology. With less legacy equipment in place, there isn't so much to support or interface with.
Several key pieces of new technology are being used at this year's Olympics. They include Sony's IMX multiformat tape machine and MVS-8000 production switcher, the Graham Patten 8000 audio console, and Pinnacle's FX Deko character generators, Thunder servers and DVEXcel DVEs.
As technical director of the NBC Olympics, Steve Laxton's job was to help identify and integrate the technology into the two main NBC control rooms and make sure everything was stable. He also served as technical director for the network's prime-time show broadcasts.
Graphics capability similar to the “first and 10” video line seen in football games was used for the ski jump competition. Viewers were able to see how far the skiers needed to jump to take the lead.
Graphics and networking
Graphics capability was crucial to this year's Olympics broadcasts. Devices that would allow the network to produce stunning images were at the top of the must-have list. A key player in the selection of the graphics technology used at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games is Philip Paully, director of graphics engineering and operations for the NBC Olympics. He had to identify contemporary creative technology that could be integrated with other Olympics technology.
Once the basic graphic look devices have been selected, key issues were twofold — the ability to provide unlimited font access online and the need to manipulate the video in new, creative ways.
The Pinnacle FX Deko with Clip Deko became the workhorse for on-air graphics. Pinnacle Thunders served as local storage. Systems from Avid and Quantel were interfaced together. The goal was to make every graphics system serve as a workstation on a single network.
Paully selected a Cisco 6000 router to handle the TCP/IP routing. With this, he was able to create discrete networks appearing to the users as a single “virtual” LAN. This configuration allowed everyone to share folders and files, graphics and directories.
Paully also needed the ability to convert the various file formats into a format readable by each of the different graphic platforms.
The Australian company Proximity provided the needed solution with their new program, Xenoclip. Xenoclip transfers images via TCP/IP and provides automatic file format conversion, pixel aspect correction and image transfer between divergent systems.
Is tape dead?
Many of the past Olympics have marked the first large-scale release of a new tape format. NBC has a history of pushing the edge with technology. In fact, the network debuted new tape technology at three previous Olympics.
While the Sony IMX tape machine is being used at the NBC Olympic broadcast center, it can't be called the establishment of a new tape format. However, according to Mazza, the machine does bring several important new production benefits to producers, including a three-hour tape load and multiformat capability. It also gives producers eight tracks of audio.
NBC produced 40,000 tapes at the Summer Olympics and 30,000 tapes at this year's event. It required 4000 tapes just to upload graphics. The network started the Winter Olympics with 25,000 blank videotapes.
The question must be, will we ever get to the point where ingest, edit and playout all reside on single or multiple servers? Mazza suggests that the answer is “yes, but it won't happen in one step.” For him, it's an issue of risk management. He doesn't believe that it's safe to put all your resources in one technology.
By the numbers
It takes a whole lot more than cameras and wire to bring the Olympics to the world. Here are a few facts from the 2002 Winter Olympics you probably never thought about. Or, maybe you did, but just didn't know the answer.
On the technical side:
375.5 total hours of NBC coverage
254,418 square feet of NBC compound space at venues
10 television/production trucks
3 SNG trucks
100 ocean sea containers shipped directly to Salt Lake City from Sydney
180 tons of portable studio air-conditioning
458 camera positions
1000 miles of cable
25,000 blank videotapes
30,000 tapes in the NBC Salt Lake City Olympic library
9000 CDs in the NBC music library
On the human side:
3260 NBC staff on site
2123 hotel rooms
4 tons of bacon
3400 lbs of broccoli
320,000 cups of coffee
188,940 meals prepared at 22 locations