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2002 Winter Olympics: Bigger, Faster, Better

Salt Lake City

(click thumbnail)The Ice Sheet at Ogden hosted the Curling World Junior Championships in March 2001.
Located in a valley that was once underneath prehistoric Lake Bonneville, Salt Lake City is framed by the Wasatch Mountains and the Great Salt Lake.

For 17 days, starting Feb. 8, Salt Lake City will be framed by the events of the 2002 Winter Olympics, buried beneath miles of cable and hundreds of racks of television equipment. Eager viewers around the world will tune in to see the speed, beauty and power of winter sports – and the efforts of an army of talented television production personnel.

Like most other recent Olympics, the technical effort is divided into two parts: the broadcast for the U.S. and the facilities for the rest of the world. The U.S. broadcaster will be NBC, which wants to leverage the latest technology to continue a tradition of innovative Olympic broadcasts.

First, everything needs to get to Salt Lake City. David Mazza, the vice president of engineering for NBC Olympics, is responsible for solving all the technical challenges and making it work.

"We design and build all the studios, control rooms, and we do a lot of work on equipment development with the vendors to try to get the various pieces of gear that are coming out at about the same time as the Olympics," Mazza said.

"We spend a lot of time with the vendors trying to ‘steer’ their plans for the products so that they’ll work better – not only for us but for what we think the industry would also like."

The host broadcaster for the games is Salt Lake City-based International Sports Broadcasting, which is building a large International Broadcast Center (IBC) that will be used to provide feeds for scores of broadcasters. NBC holds the U.S. broadcast rights for five straight Olympics, starting with the 2000 summer games in Sydney, and is building its own considerable facility to create broadcasts tailored for the U.S. audience.

Mazza, who has been with NBC since the Atlanta Summer Olympics in 1996, worked free-lance on a variety of live events prior to his employment at NBC. His first Olympics was the summer games in Los Angeles in 1984, and he was technical director of the primetime Olympics programming for NBC in 1988 and 1992.

The logistics and planning required for the Olympics go far beyond the usual needs of television production, even for big-time sports production. Frequency coordination for all of the wireless, microwave and satellite equipment used at the Olympics is a full-time job by itself. Then there is the power.

"If you look at a risk analysis chart, at the top of the list is ‘power,’" Mazza said.

NBC officials met with the local power company about 18 months before the Olympics to discuss the entire power service, including power stations and control facilities. The network looks for diversity in the power system and at the history of failures in the area. Of course, NBC will have multiple backup systems to handle power failures at any of its many facilities at the Olympics.

But you don’t watch power – at least not electrical power – when you tune in the Olympics. Viewers expect to get the cleanest signals and the highest production values, which means demanding more from the vendors that supply equipment for the broadcasts.

"We have a lot of new equipment for this Olympics," Mazza said.

According to Mazza, getting stable software for many of these new products is one of NBC’s biggest challenges. Another challenge is that some of the critical pieces won’t be delivered until less than two months before the opening ceremonies.

Some of the equipment that NBC is preparing to use for the first time at the 2002 winter games includes two Sony MVS-8000 production switchers, 16 Graham-Patten D/ESAM 8000 audio consoles, and dozens of Sony Betacam IMX MPEG-2 VCRs.

Also new for NBC in Salt Lake City are a variety of Pinnacle Systems products, including Pinnacle FXDeko II CGs, Thunder clip and stillstores, and DVEXCEL digital video effects systems.


(click thumbnail)A competitor skates at the World Single Distance Speed Skating Championships in the Utah Olympic Oval in March 2001
Many of these products are brand new, and that causes a certain amount of anxiety among the NBC team members.

"NBC and the vendors – mostly the vendors – have been working 24 hours a day to get the products finished in time and in a stable state," Mazza said. "We work very hard to try to have the latest and greatest stuff, but at the same time we want stable things."

One example of the relationship between NBC and a manufacturer is the Graham-Patten D/ESAM 8000 audio console. The network was looking for a way to maintain – even improve – audio quality and usability, while at the same time it wanted to reduce cabling cost and complexity.

"We convinced [Graham-Patten] to do SDI inputs for the mixer," Mazza said. "We have 72-input mixers in our edit rooms and we connect each with eight or nine coax cables coming from the eight-channel VTRs in the room. Those eight or nine cables are bringing all 72 inputs to the mixer."

Mazza reports that NBC has contracted with many sports production companies to cover the wide-ranging venues at the Winter Olympics. The trucks supplied by these companies use a huge variety of equipment – there is no specific camera make or model that will be on the air at any given time, for example. However, Mazza noted that many of the cameras will be fitted with Canon lenses equipped with optical stabilization.

Many manufacturers will have on-site staff to make sure their products hold up to the demands of the Olympics. Avid is supplying 13 Symphonies for various editing operations, 10 MediaStations for signal ingest and seven Unity video storage systems, some of which will be used by NBC and the rest by the IBC and international broadcasters. Two engineers from Avid will be on site to respond to any calls.

Avid spent two years working with various partners on its equipment for the Olympics and has had its engineers in Salt Lake City since the beginning of December.

"Sydney was our first Olympics – by now, we’re getting pretty good at it," said Adam Taylor, vice president for Americas Sales Operations at Avid.

With about three dozen Sony MAV-555 digital disk recorders and racks full of Sony IMX recorders in NBC’s Olympic facilities, you might think that most of the broadcast is prerecorded.

"Actually, as much as possible is going to be live," Mazza said. "If an event like figure skating is happening at night, in primetime, it will be live."

If you have seen sports in high definition, you will never want to go back. NBC, in association with HDNet, will broadcast the 2002 Winter Olympics in HD.

"Anyone who doesn’t have an HDTV … should add one to their holiday wish lists," said Mark Cuban, co-founder and chairman of HDNet. "The homes with HDTVs will be the most popular houses on the block during the Olympics."

HD broadcasts of the Olympics will be on NBC from 3-11 p.m. (ET) daily and will be replayed from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. and again from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. The HD format will be 1080i with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio.


(click thumbnail)Snowbasin Ski Area will be the site of the alpine events including the downhill, super-G, combined and Paralympic events.
Panasonic is also a major supplier of equipment for the Olympics. The company is providing more than 250 DVCPRO50 recorders for use in the IBC as well as various venues; in fact, DVCPRO50 is the official recording format of the 2002 Winter Olympics.

In addition to VCRs, Panasonic is supplying 50 digital cameras and more than 900 monitors. Some of the key Panasonic products include AJ-D910WA DVCPRO50 camcorders, AJ-D950 DVCPRO50 editing and slow-motion VCRs, and AJ-HD3700 multiformat D-5 VCRs. The company even has a significant hand in the audio facilities, with 35 Ramsa sound systems in 14 different locations.

Many of the venues will use Telecast Fiber Systems’ products to get signals to NBC for broadcast. Telecast Viper II and Adder fiber transport products will be used by NBC for shooting alpine skiing, snowboarding and freestyle aerial events, as well for the opening and closing ceremonies.

"We’re running fiber optic cable ... 10,000 feet up on the mountain, in the middle of winter," said Chip Adams, director of venue engineering for NBC Olympics. "Under those conditions, Telecast fiber equipment will be an essential part of a successful transmission system."

Other venues use microwave and satellite links to move the signals where they need to go. Among other gear, NBC will use Alteia PSR942C receivers and E5425 mobile contribution encoders from Tandberg Television for signal backhaul and quality monitoring.

The network has also tapped Radyne Comstream to supply its Tiernan TDR-6 Integrated Receiver Decoder to distribute HD coverage to its affiliate stations nationwide. Distribution of HDTV programming will be accomplished via NBC’s Skypath distribution system, which also uses Tiernan HDTV encoding equipment.

Simplifying the distribution of audio signals will be Dolby E multiplexing equipment, which places eight channels of audio on two AES/EBU pairs. In addition, most of the broadcasts will be encoded in Dolby Surround Sound using Dolby SEU4 encoders, reports Jim Hilson, senior broadcast audio specialist for Dolby Laboratories. Dolby 430 noise suppression devices will be used in the studios and in some of the venues to eliminate HVAC noise and rumble from the announcer’s audio.

There cannot be a project of the complexity of the Olympics without a flexible and reliable intercom system. An intercom is the nervous system of any television production and the Olympics needs an intercom system that keeps working no matter what is happening at any of the venues or studios.

"Behind the power and routing switcher, the intercom is probably the next most critical piece of gear in the plant," said Mazza.

In Salt Lake City, NBC will use a Telex ADAM intercom matrix measuring 480x480 and more than 250 KP32 32-button intercom panels throughout the facility. In the event of a malfunction, NBC has a "hot-mic" system that takes the unswitched mic outputs from all the key production people and distributes this audio on a separate system to every key operational area.

In order to prevent a single point of failure for NBC’s signal, Mazza reports that there will be duplicates of critical pieces of equipment and multiple paths for the signal flow. NBC will have two identical control rooms and will have complete redundancy in the event of a catastrophic failure.

"Once it leaves the production switcher, any device – active or passive – after the production switcher must be redundant," Mazza said, "all the way to two buttons in New York where the main and backup feeds come in."

The Olympics is a production effort of, well, Olympian proportions. For example, NBC will hand out about 600 cell phones to various critical production and technical staffers. From opening to closing ceremonies, the efforts of hundreds of video professionals and dozens of manufacturers will be on-screen for all to see.

Bob Kovacs is the former Technology Editor for TV Tech and editor of Government Video. He is a long-time video engineer and writer, who now works as a video producer for a government agency. In 2020, Kovacs won several awards as the editor and co-producer of the short film "Rendezvous."