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NBC Sports Group builds new home

The new International Broadcast Center that NBC Sports Group is now completing in Stamford, CT, to house the division’s NBC Sports, NBC Olympics, NBC Sports Digital, NBC Sports Network and the NBC Sports Group Regional Network’s management team is a conglomeration of ingenuity, technology resourcefulness and vision.

As part of Governor Dannel P. Malloy’s “First Five” economic development program, in 2011 NBC Sports Group signed a lease for production, studio and administrative office space in the former Clairol factory that made Herbal Essences shampoo. But it was in late 2010 when Comcast’s VERSUS (now NBC Sports Network) began looking at possible new homes for the growing network. Similarly, NBC Olympics, housed in a different office in Stamford, was also looking for a larger facility. It turned out both of their respective leases were set to expire within six months of each other.

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This was during the same time that NBC was planning and gearing up for the 2012 London Olympics. In fact, many of the lessons learned from NBC’s experience with past Olympics broadcasts have been brought to bear in the new place. (NBC has held the American broadcasting rights of the Summer Olympics since the 1988 games and the broadcasting rights to the Winter Olympics since the 2002 games. In 2011, Comcast paid $4.38 billion to broadcast the 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2020 Olympics, the most expensive television rights deal in Olympic history). The facility is designed to support all future “at-home” Olympic efforts, which previously had been housed at NBC’s New York hub at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

“We had a lot of real-world experience to pull from to really make this a showplace for the best content creation workflows,” says David Mazza, CTO & SVP, Engineering, NBC Sports & Olympics. “The team understands how a networked system works, and we know the successes and pitfalls of file-based HD production. We also recognize the need to do things as efficiently as possible in order to sustain a successful business model for Comcast and the NBC Sports Group.”

Finding a factory

NBC Sports Group looked at more than 20 locations across the region before settling on the former Clairol factory and its two floors of 170,000sq ft each of unencumbered workspace with 24ft high ceilings, wide spacing between the support columns and, on the lower floor, a 10-bay loading dock. It also had its own water supply (a half million gallons replenished almost daily, previously used to make shampoo) and 8MW of diverse power fed directly from a utility substation. The new address is 1 Blachley Road and, as of late April, finishing touches like outside landscaping and other accoutrements were still being installed.

A 100,000sq-ft administration building and commissary was completed by July. The facility supports 500-plus employees regularly, and up to 750, combining four different offices from three different states.

The concept of a large facility that could support all of the various sports properties under one roof immediately appealed to upper management at NBCU/Comcast, and with the support of Governor Malloy and Stamford Mayor Michael Pavia, the decision was made to go ahead and co-locate every sports and digital media division except The Golf Channel (which is based in Orlando, FL) and the 11 locally-based NBC Sports Regional Networks. A new multi-year lease was signed in early November 2011, demolition began that Thanksgiving, and design and construction began in earnest in February 2012.

Through much intense schedule and manpower coordination, systems integration and sweat, NBC Sports Group went live from the facility in December of 2012. Paul Koopmann, VP, Engineering, NBC Sports Group, likes to say that they went from “dust to airwaves in a mere 10 months,” including redundant signal paths throughout, finished edit suites, control rooms, audio suites, voice-over rooms and all of the necessary requirements of a file-based video production center that supports both NBC’s television and online operations.

Getting the building ready for staffing was a monumental task, made more challenging because in June 2012, nearly half the staff went to London for the Olympics, leaving Koopmann and Project Manager James Lee to manage the project until the start of the NHL Hockey season in September. The subsequent NHL lockout gave the team a bit of breathing room, but not much, according to Larry Thaler, president of Positive Flux (based in New York), whose team helped keep the project on track and coordinate with the engineers in London for all the equipment decisions and ordering.

Thaler says that having many of the key decision makers and producers away at the Olympics didn’t make things any easier. Most of the final designs were being completed while the engineering leads were away focused on the Games. Also, many of the major systems were in use in London until the end of August and needed to be quickly delivered to the U.S., installed and tested.

“There were significant logistics and coordination between teams to make this happen,” Thaler says. “A large number of talented people worked long hours to make this a success. It’s really an amazing feat of engineering.”

Al Cohen of Diversified Systems, Inc. (DSI, in Kenilworth, NJ) worked closely with Sony to implement all of the equipment and systems. DSI employees are still on-site and will be for some time. Cohen says it was one of the largest and fastest builds his company has ever completed.

Flexible foundation

After removing all signs of its past — including vats of “green goo” and massive manufacturing equipment — the crew installed a completely new audio and video infrastructure inside the building, complete with new HVAC and power systems, a wireless intercom network and

HD-SDI, IP and embedded audio signals running everywhere. This all-3Gb/s 1080i/50/60 HD system design includes more than 1100mi of SMPTE hybrid coax, 600mi of Cat 6 and 500mi of single-mode fiber cables linking $40 million in equipment. (Much of that equipment repurposes from past Olympics projects.)

Comcast now has one of the most advanced television facilities in the country. Indeed, the facility has gone from a previously thriving shampoo factory to a vibrant digital media creation factory and (pardon the pun) has seen silky, smooth results.

The production systems are primarily Sony and Calrec, with playback from EVS, post production from Avid, and archive/MAM from Avid and Harmonic. In addition, most of the infrastructure is made up of signal distribution technology from Evertz Microsystems. There’s an Evertz EQX 1152 x 1152 router (with a 10GB backplane) that will “someday soon” be increased to a 2300 x 2300 I/O matrix. They make heavy use of passive optical splitting patch panels that convert the signals as necessary and eliminate the need for hundreds of D/As. This also conserves space in the central machine room, which has been built on a raised floor with extra rack space for future growth.

The transmission area employs a 512 x 512 EQX router to handle 132 incoming feeds, while an internal IP-based network allows signals to be monitored from any desktop in the building. It’s a state-of-the-art MPEG-2/H.264 (future) based MATV system supported by technology from Harmonic (for encoding) and Triveni Digital (for PSIP information) in which every feed gets its own dedicated IP channel. These MPEG-2 signals are converted to QAM for display on all of the TV sets throughout the building.

A mezzanine level of offices overlooks a centrally located newsroom and features a full complement of EVS and Avid logging stations, with uploaded assets stored on a central Avid ISIS system. Also feeding into this are 60 Avid Media Composer edit rooms, which are strategically located into separate areas that serve the different sports properties now housed inside the new building. Small details, like an elevating workstation desk (made by TBC Consoles) that allows producers and editors to comfortably work side by side and collaborate on projects lend a unique feel to the workplace.

Olympics-tested HD production

All production occurs inside four large studios (with room for two more), complete with Sony HDC-2400 cameras and adjourning HD control rooms. These rooms feature Sony MVS-7000 switchers and a Miranda Kaleido-X multiview monitor wall (with 10 Sony OLED and LCD flat panel monitors). There are also numerous seats of Chyron HyperX graphics workstations (all are instantly available to the production staff) and three large audio mixing rooms, complete with Calrec Artemis consoles. All of this equipment was previously used at the 2012 London Olympic Games.

The production studios — and indeed the entire building — have been outfitted with LED lighting, saving the company significant sums of money in power bills. The latest-generation lighting fixtures, although more expensive than traditional incandescent studio lighting, use about 6W of power per square foot, compared to 50W per square foot for a typical studio lighting rig. They’re also using DMX controllers to shut off the LED lights completely at the end of the day, saving more power. Due to this efficiency, Koopmann says that NBC received a $500,000 credit on its power bill because it had saved so much on usage. To date, it is one of the largest rebate checks in the state’s history.

Next to the studios are two screening rooms where the talent and production teams can watch ongoing sporting events between appearing on-air. These rooms include a Sony 4K projector for pristine viewing of live game feeds.

In addition, NBC’s famed “Highlights Factory,” responsible for all of the short clips ingested, edited and sent out over the Internet — which had been previously housed at NBC’s famed Studio 8H, home of “Saturday Night Live” at the 30 Rock headquarters for the 2008 and 2012 Olympics — is now based inside the new Connecticut building. There’s more space and people to get the job done. Leveraging the on-site AVID MAM, the digital media group can access all clips from the archive as well as from incoming feeds. Once finished, online stories are pitched to streaming encoders associated with the various delivery platforms that NBC Sports uses to distribute content to the outside world. In general, all content is accessible to all groups within the building. Another innovation is a new, MADI-based hot-mic system leveraging a new panel design made by Wohler.

Having it all under one roof will bring new efficiencies and get content to air (or in viewers’ hands) faster. Mazza says the system will be enhanced in some areas, as it gets ready for next Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The Stamford facility will have full, real-time connectivity to the on-site IBC in Russia. In preparation for the at-home effort for the Olympics, the facility was designed to be switchable between 50Hz and 60Hz.

On a daily basis, once content for any of its distribution platforms is finished in Stamford, it is sent to NBC’s 30 Rock for commercial insertion, and other types of program IDs are added before being distributed to viewers of the TV networks. Content is also distributed via 10GB ASI links to the CNBC building in Englewood Cliffs, NJ, for playout and commercial insertion for Comcast/NBC Universal’s Cable Networks. There’s also seamless connectivity to Comcast’s Digital Media Center in Denver, CO, and Encompass (a teleport in Glenbrook, CT).

The new facility allows Mazza’s team to set up entire working systems to test out before being shipped out in the network’s field-proven Racks-in-a-Box System (RIBS) containers to the next Olympics site. They’ve never had that kind of space before.

Heads above the competition

If Koopmann and Mazza tend to use the word “factory” a lot in describing the new facility and how they expect it to operate, that’s not an accident. The mentality of a finely tuned operation that efficiently produces content on a massive scale is exactly what they were after in the initial design drawings. The demand from consumers for more and more content dictated the type of workflows and workspace that NBC has now put into place.

“The irony is that if we had started from scratch and taken three years to build a brand new building, it would probably look a lot like this one does today,” Mazza says. “But, that took an extraordinary effort by a lot of incredibly talented people who worked countless hours to get this done on time.”

Indeed, the building maintains a factory look and feel, but the overall goal to be open and somewhat informal with recycled elements throughout makes it refreshing in terms of new television production facility design. Basically, it’s a place that encourages a happy work environment and unlimited collaboration among the staff. And due to its heritage, maybe — among all of the new HD production gear and signal monitoring and distribution technology — the content will appear more clean and shiny.

Design team

  • NBC engineering and design team: Joe DiFrisco, Chris Jorgensen, Terry Adams, Darryl Jefferson, Jim Miles, Phil Paully, Bob Dixon, Kamal Bhangle, Craig Lau, Chris Lubbers, Matt Maresco, Bob Kiraly, Tom Duff, Jasper Veldhuis, Dominic Torchia, Jon Ort, Stacey Georgiou, Bob Gilmartin, Matt Green, Steve Kaufman, Rob Laug, Chip Adams, John Pastore, Craig Bernstein, Steve Wong, Steve Cuneo, Tom Saylor, Terri Leopold, Paul DeRubeis, Kathy Mosolino, Tom Popple
  • NBC Sports Group management team: David Mazza, CTO/SVP, Engineering, NBC Sports & Olympics; Paul Koopmann, VP, Engineering, NBC Sports; John Fritsche, SVP, Olympic Operations & Stamford facilities, NBC Sports & Olympics; Mike Meehan, SVP, Operations, Sports & Olympics
    NBC sourcing and procurement: Robert Sanders, VP, Sourcing NBC Universal; Randy Raddatz, VP Sourcing & Production Logistics, Sports & Olympics; Mike DiBenedetto, Sourcing Manager, NBCUniversal
  • Integration team: Al Cohen, Don Niehoff , Sony/Diversified Systems, Inc.; Larry Thaler, Positive Flux
    Architectural design, mechanical/electrical and construction management team: Mancini & Duffy: Joe Montalbano and Amanda Colonna; AMA: Arthur Metzler, Anthony Cucuzza and Chris Bodenmiller; Gensler Associates: James Lee, Proj. Mgr.; Pavarini Construction: Brian Boyce, Paul Poellot

Technology at work

  • Abekas: Mira playback servers
  • Avid: Media Composer, ISIS, Interplay MAM/PAM
  • Bosch/Telex: Communications systems
  • Calrec: Artemis audio consoles
  • Canon: Lenses
  • Chyron: HyperX graphics
  • Cisco: Routing and networking products
  • Evertz Microsystems: EQX router, IRM and modular
  • EVS: XT3 servers
  • Harmonic: Ingest servers, video servers, MPEG-2/QAM encoders
  • Image Video: Tally systems
  • Miranda Technologies: Kaleido multiview processors
  • RTS: Communications systems
  • ScheduALL: Scheduling systems
  • Sony: HDC-2400 HD cameras, MVS-7000 production switcher, LCD and OLED monitors, 4K projector
  • TBC Consoles: Workstation desk
  • Spectra Logic: T-Finity tape archive driven by SGL software
  • Telestream: Transcoding and workflow
  • Tektronix: Scopes and rasterizers
  • Wohler: Audio monitoring, AMP1-MADIe panel

Michael Grotticelli regularly reports on the professional video and broadcast technology industries.