Marc Weinstock, director, technical operations with NBCUniversal, assesses camera angles in advance of Wallenda's canyon walk.
NEW YORK—Attentive viewers of the recent Nik Wallenda-Grand Canyon highwire walk may have noticed something odd. The highly touted Discovery Channel media special, which attracted 13 million cable viewers and millions more via the Internet worldwide, was not produced by Discovery; it was instead produced by NBC.
Specifically, it was produced by NBC Peacock Productions, one of the four major broadcast networks’ “stealth” production operations: in-house divisions that quietly produce significant amounts of programming both for their home networks as well as for seemingly competitive broadcast and cable operations. The NBC unit, according to Sharon Scott, Peacock Productions’ executive producer/general manager, is an internal, nonfiction production company attached to NBC News that generally operates independently of the needs of NBCUniversal (NBCU). It has a staff of roughly 170 people.
“We’re certainly a successful production company,” Scott said with a laugh. “Could we be a little more loud about who we are? Of course, and I’m happy that Wallenda is giving us that opportunity.”
Peacock Productions' Excellent Nik Wallenda Adventure
NEW YORK—“Skywire Live,” Nik Wallenda’s epic 22 minutes, 53-second quarter-mile wire walk across a remote section of the Grand Canyon on June 23, televised on the Discovery Channel and out to the Internet worldwide, was a high-wire success for everyone involved, but it was hardly a cakewalk to produce.
Bringing the show to air was a year in the making, from Peacock Productions executive producer Gretchen Eisele’s initial meetings with Discovery Channel executives to actual production. “Our ambitious pitch to Discovery came out as we envisioned it,” Eisele said. “We made magic. It was stunningly beautiful and technically flawless.”
Setting up the live shoot required the work of 150 people on site in Arizona on a location so remote that a one-lane three-quarter-mile gravel road was built from the nearest highway to the production site. Negotiations with the Navaho Nation’s environmental experts—two endangered species were threatened by the road—had lawyers working overtime, according to Marc Weinstock, NBCUniversal director of technical operations whose facilities worked with NBC’s in-house Peacock Productions on the project.
In addition to the production truck (from All Mobile Video) and other vehicles assembled on site, a separate mobile cell service provider vehicle was required to make local cell service even remotely possible. To provision Wallenda’s starting point—a free-standing rock peninsula dubbed “the island”—a Bell helicopter was required to deliver every piece of gear including the two-inch, 2,300-foot-long two-ton steel cable Wallenda used for his epic walk. To set up a point of view at the bottom of the canyon, workers repelled down a 1,500-foot canyon wall with a fiber-optic cable to attach to the camera.
Broadcast Sports Inc. (BSI) developed the sports rig worn by Wallenda with Wallenda’s input. Every facet needed to be custom-designed including the two live cameras he wore as well as aerodynamic hand-sewn pockets for the antennas to lessen the effects of wind during his walk. In all, 19 cameras were used, most of them Sony HDC-2500 multi-format cameras. One helicopter sported a Cineflex gyro-stabilized camera during the shoot; a second helicopter shot live with a hand-held camera. Wallenda’s two point of view camera focused on the horizon ahead—the end of his walk—and the other pointed straight down at his feet, and to the steep canyon bottom below.
Nik Wallenda walks across a 2-inch wire 1,500 feet above the ground to cross the grand canyon.
DIVERSE CLIENT LIST
Its client list reflects its independence from the mother ship. While it produces programming such as news specials and quick-turnaround projects for NBC News and NBC-owned channels such as SyFy and MSNBC, it also produces reality-themed content for more than 215 clients: multiple Discovery channels, Style Channel, E!, Lifetime, Sundance Channel and others. Started in 2007 as NBC News Productions, an offshoot of the news division, the division grew rapidly into a self-sustaining organization. “We’re a fully functioning company within a much larger corporation,” Scott noted.
On its current production list, among others, are an as-yet unnamed profile special on Valerie Harper, hosted by Meredith Viera for NBC News; “Partners in Crime,” a docu-comedy for USA Network, and “I’d Kill for You,” a true-crime series for Investigation Discovery. Peacock Productions has its own dedicated production space on two floors of New York’s 30 Rockefeller Center, connected by fiber-optic to centralized storage. According to Jonathan Damour, manager of technical operations and a Peacock manager since its inception, the unit is fully compatible with NBC News’ editing and other systems.
In addition to its own machine rooms, Peacock has 37 edit bays, all equipped with Avid Media Composer systems. Additionally, 15 of those are include Avid Nitris hardware for acceleration and breakout connectivity. Two Avid ISIS 5000 media storage installations provide 130 TB of storage while two Blackmagic routers connect all Peacock systems, connected via HDSI with embedded audio. The set allows total flexibility in connecting systems for editing and digitizing, decks of virtually every major format: from HDCAM and HDCAM-SR to BetaSP and DVD. Damour described the facility as a “swiss army knife” capable of handling the needs of any format or frame rate required by outside clients.
Gretchen Eisele, executive producer for the Wallenda canyon walk.
Satellite time, trucks and ancillary gear—significant elements for Peacock’s live productions—are handled by NBCU’s field operations division. According to Marc Weinstock, director of operations, flawless satellite service was key to the live Wallenda walk. Because the Arizona site was a bare-bones location, NBCU assembled an ad hoc satellite network including a 24/7 communications package on NBC-owned space onboard SES satellite AMC-6, which originated from an NBC Ku-band satellite truck. A separate uplink antenna on the same truck provided Ku-band backup for the live broadcast.
The show’s primary signal emanated from a Peak Uplink truck on a C-band transmission to an SES satellite. Because cell phone coverage was also lacking, a regional company, Commnet Wireless, provided a “cow” truck (cellular on wheels) with a portable uplink package, enabling crews to talk to each other and to the outside world.
The need to innovate has resulted in Peacock being somewhat of an “incubator” for new and emerging technologies, some of which may find its way to greater adoption by NBC News such as Peacock’s early incorporation of tapeless video acquisition within the news division.
Currently, Peacock’s cameras of choice are Sony PMW-EX1R and PMW- EX-3 cameras for general use. The XDCAM-EX codec is easy to work with, Damour said, adding that he finds the XDCAM browser tool (formerly known as Clip Browser) an excellent application for producers to view, screen and transfer content to laptops in the field for editing and uploading. He also praised the codec’s ability to maintain the original native high-res format throughout editing without requiring a low-res offline session.
Since many Peacock projects are of the re-creation genre—shows with historical “you are there” segments—the production company has made significant use of DSLR cameras such as the Canon 5D, 6D and 7D models. For greater video control, however, Peacock prefers the Canon EOS C-300, which is designed for video production. “It has all the features we wish the DSLRS had: good on-board audio and time code,” Damour said.
Are video clients still using tape in production? It’s rare on the camera end, he continued. Mastering to tape continues for many clients, however; a tape master produced in HDCAM SR with 8 to 12 channels of audio is still a viable format for some. As for delivery of a finished master to the client, the final delivery system depends on the length of the show. A short program, 10–15 minutes in length could be delivered over IP or satellite; longer shows, however, are still delivered conventionally such as a FedEx-delivered hard drive.
The Wallenda project is not only a showcase for Peacock’s services, Scott noted. It also shows the emergence of live, real-time programming as a significant trend. “I remember going through ‘x-number’ of years where we couldn’t sell live if it was the last thing we had,” she said. “It couldn’t be amortized. It couldn’t be run 500 times. It wasn’t evergreen. It didn’t fit the cable model.”
Today, however, live events are becoming “tent-pole” events. The public likes them and the cable channels love them because they both drive viewers to their site, and they offer opportunities to launch new shows.
“Wallenda is a prime example of this trend,” she added. “It was the craziest production we’ve done [but] there are more projects in the pipeline because of Wallenda.”