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NBC Clears HD Hurdle for Beijing

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(click thumbnail)NBC Pursues Mass Streaming Initiative

A Big Job for BOB

TVT Newsbytes - Olympics

DTV Debut for GamesBEIJING
Before a single Chinese pasi gong has sounded on the opening ceremonies on August 8, the 2008 Summer Olympic Games is already proving to be groundbreaking television.

The games have inspired riots around the world, set off political infighting, led to broadcast equipment delays, promised to pull in a record-breaking financial windfall for the International Olympic Committee, and cost broadcasters $2.5 billion in the three years leading up to this year’s event.

All before a single competition has gotten underway.

The physical broadcast of the world’s most famous sporting event is expected to be groundbreaking as well. For the first time for viewers here in the United States, the Olympic Games will be produced and broadcast as an all-HD affair.

That leaves a monumental task in the hands of the host broadcaster, Beijing Olympic Broadcasting, and to NBC, the U.S. broadcast rights holder of the Olympics through 2012.

While NBC has been in these shoes before—most recently in Torino, Italy for the 2006 Winter Games—the Beijing Olympics have brought unique challenges, such as security snafus with broadcast equipment, the difficulty in shipping multi-ton OB trucks halfway across the world, and simply the challenge of setting up a world-class broadcast environment in a nation not known for openness and an ease of operation.

“Before we landed in China we already had a massively more ambitious project than Athens,” said David Mazza, senior vice president of engineering for NBC Olympics. “To that, when you add the intricacies of doing an Olympics and a broadcast of this size in China—with so many of its own firsts—you can’t help but have some significant challenges ahead of you.”

(click thumbnail)A HI-DEF WELCOME

Yet the games will go on in all their glory, and in front of a massive global audience. More than 4 billion worldwide are expected to watch the Olympics, which will air in the United States on NBC and its NBC Universal sister networks, CNBC, Oxygen, USANetwork, Telemundo and Universal HD.

Coverage of the Beijing Olympics will kick off at the new Beijing National Stadium, an artfully lit, oval-shaped stadium known affectionately as the “Bird’s Nest” for its interwoven columns and gently sloping edges.

The action will travel far and wide across China, with events like soccer in Qinhuangdao, equestrian in Hong Kong, and sailing in Qingdao at newly opened architectural pieces like the Beijing National Aquatics Centre and the Olympic Green.

NBC plans to present more than 3,600 hours of broadcast coverage of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, (including 2,900 hours of live coverage), with more than 2,200 hours of live coverage dedicated to the network’s Internet streaming venture, (see “NBC Pursues Mass Streaming Initiative,” p. 21).

(click thumbnail)PRESSING CHALLENGES

NBC’s most pressing challenges have been to ensure that the landmark goal of providing an HD-only broadcast goes off with as few hitches as possible.

“Technically, there are [HD] issues relating to infrastructure, such as cable length, all new peripherals, production systems, storage space and processing power,” Mazza said.

“Operationally, [the challenge of] shooting and protecting for the 4:3 center slice is something we have to continue to remind our camera operators about. It is very easy to be taken in by the size of the 16:9 canvas and forget that many of our viewers at home are still only seeing the 4:3 center portion.”

Add to that the fact that “television on this scale has never been done here before, access like this never been done before, transmission in and out of China never been done like this before, and currently very little SNG and ENG seems to happen here,” Mazza said.

NBC is also attempting a number of technical feats, including using a technology from Switzerland-based Dartfish called “StroMotion,” which employs stop-action photography to show frame by frame the exact location of a diver entering the water, or a gymnast flipping across a floor mat.

(click thumbnail)The Beijing National Aquatics Centre (foreground) will host swimming and diving events while opening and closing ceremonies and track and field events will be held in the Beijing National Stadium (background).
NBC will also use specialty camera placements to provide viewers with unique perspectives, such as its DiveCam, UnderwaterCam and TrackCam technologies, and will set up specific POV cameras on the new BMX and whitewater kayaking events to give viewers the feel of the course, and capture the action in a way that hadn’t been possible with other camera position placements, Mazza said.


NBC has ushered in equipment manufacturers to make that possible, from smaller firms like Blue Order to behemoths like Sony, who will provide a spate of technology to the games, with new XDCAM HD 4:2:2 technology including 30 PDW-700 2/3-inch CCD cameras and 170 PDW-HD1500 recording decks.

As NBC’s key ENG camcorder, the XDCAMs will be used to record athlete arrivals, interviews, press conferences and the like, and were selected for their improved picture performance and reduced capture and storage costs, according to Mazza. The network will also put PDW-700 camcorders in the hands of its Spanish-language television network Telemundo, who will use the models at a standup location overlooking the Olympic Stadium. The equipment will record on the 50 GB version of the PFD50DLA, Sony’s optical Professional Disc media.

NBC will also use 42 Sony HDC-1400 studio cameras as well as several HDC-3300 3x Super Motion cameras. Switchers from Sony will also be put to use, including 11 MVS-8000s and two MFS-2000s.

Lenses will be a mix of Canon studio and ENG lenses, and NBC will rely on Anton/Bauer batteries.

To cover the 302 Olympic events—including nine new disciplines, such as marathon swimming and the aforementioned BMX competition—BOB will use more than 60 OB units and NBC will use all-HD mobile video control rooms, known as flypacks, as well as mobile units to cover athletics, gymnastics, aquatics, beach and indoor volleyball, boxing, basketball and more from NEP Visions in the UK, NEP Pittsburgh, Bexel Broadcast Services, Chinese-based Xaitong, and from Chinese firm CNC, which will supply two SNG trucks. Five venues will have just a commentator system on site for announcers.

(click thumbnail)NBC is using Avid ingest stations in its graphics area.AUDIO ASPECTS

Audio will mark a milestone as well, with the games produced in high definition with 5.1 discrete channels of audio, as well as stereo broadcasting. “Each Olympic Games’ coverage brings with it new demands for better technology, increased flexibility and greater efficiency,” said Bob Dixon, NBC’s director of sound design at the Beijing games.

Starting with the Summer Games in Atlanta in 1996 to Beijing in 2008, the network has gone from an analog-only two-channel contribution and distribution platform to a fully digital, discrete 5.1 channel platform, Dixon said. To help the network succeed on that path, NBC will use five Omega with Bluefin consoles from Calrec. Two boards will provide audio coverage for the opening and closing ceremonies, and the athletics. Another two consoles will be used for gymnastics and trampoline events, and a fifth will be used for beach volleyball.

Other audio solutions include DiGiCo mixing consoles, Yamaha mini mixing consoles and Graham-Patten edit mixing consoles Mics include systems from Audio-Technica and Sennheiser. This is the first time the games will be produced totally in high definition with 5.1 discrete channels of audio, according to Dixon. “We are still in a period of transition in the United States, so most of our audience will still watch the games on standard-definition television receivers with two channels of audio,” he said. “This means that everything we do in China must serve both communities.”

The plan is to send six discrete channels of audio with HD pictures to the United States. Special care will be taken to downmix those channels for NBC’s stereo-listening audience. Audio from each venue will be sent as a 5.1-channel program mix and simultaneously as a two-channel program downmix and a stereo downmix of the sound effects. The stereo sound effects mix will be used in promos and post-produced pieces, Dixon said.

NBC will also have 30 UPMAX:neo upmixers from Linear Acoustic on hand to analyze the quality of incoming feeds, upmix audio to 5.1 if necessary, and downmix to stereo sound to maintain consistent quality. Dolby gear will be deployed for loudness monitoring, with NBC using ADAM intercoms from Telex and RVON VoIP interfaces from RTS.


For editing and graphics, NBC will use Avid nonlinear systems including the Digidesign ProTools for sweetening, EVS IPEdit for IPDirector, Chyron HyperX2 Duet, Discreet Logic Smoke and several Apple systems running Adobe Creative Suite 3, Maxon Cinema 4D and Final Cut Express.

For storage, NBC will use clustered solutions from Isilon Systems, including the Isilon IQ clustered system, as the primary on-site storage solution for media created on the HD EVS XT[2] server system.

Other storage solutions include 400 TB of Omneon MediaGrids and MediaDecks and 250 TB of Avid Isis. The network will archive all low-resolution Olympic footage onto Isilon IQ. NBC will rely on Blue Order’s Media Archive for asset management, and Cryadis Technologies for machine control. The Omneon ProCast content distribution platform will be put to work to handle long-distance file transfer management and acceleration, and ScheduALL will be used for facilities scheduling. For proxy viewing, NBC will use technology from MOG Solutions, including Toboggan software for conforming SD and HD files. Anystream and Velocity software will be used for flipping new media files.

For teleprompting needs in the field and studio, the teleprompting firm Autoscript will provide 15 WinPlus News systems, which includes a Windows-based teleprompting suite linked into an electronic newsroom system, as well as seventeen 17-inch TFT high-brightness on camera units and six 15-inch TFT on camera units. The prompters will be in NBC’s studios on location in Beijing and at venues such as swimming, gymnastics and boxing. For mobile coverage, the network will use an 8-inch TFT lightweight system.

Behind the scenes, the network will use Miranda Digital Glue equipment; Tektronix terminal gear; Tandberg Television MPEG-4 encoders, decoders and multiplexers; Snell & Wilcox standard converter equipment; Cisco data routers; Scientific-Atlanta IPTV equipment; Barco projectors; and Sony MVS-8000G switchers.

Susan Ashworth is the former editor of TV Technology. In addition to her work covering the broadcast television industry, she has served as editor of two housing finance magazines and written about topics as varied as education, radio, chess, music and sports. Outside of her life as a writer, she recently served as president of a local nonprofit organization supporting girls in baseball.