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Olympics 3.0 - TvTechnology

Olympics 3.0

"We were running with a much higher degree of risk on the new media functionality than we ever could have run on the broadcast side. … We never could have afforded that amount of risk on the broadcast side."
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TV Technology Asia/Pacific Editor Mark Hallinger caught up twice with Dave Mazza, once after the first week of the Games and again the day after closing ceremonies.


TV TECHNOLOGY: Coming in to this, six or seven months ago, what were your biggest worries?

MAZZA: When they started tackling the torch runners in London and Paris we were worried about the politics, we were worried about whether we would be allowed to cover everything as we had been promised, to send our SNG trucks and crews anywhere they needed to go.

And we were worried about the simple fact that the Chinese had never done an event on this scale with so many rightsholders all wanting to cover television they way they have done historically. An example is SNG trucks, where initially we were asked to tell them where our trucks would go at 6 p.m. the day before … but we had no problem.

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Dave Mazza, senior vice president for engineering, NBC Olympics TV TECHNOLOGY: And technically?

MAZZA: Technically, I was worried about the overall complexity and the number of feeds that were going back and forth and keeping the @home initiative efforts [to produce clips stateside] in New York running.

I wasn't terribly worried about the broadcast side because that's where we have all of the veterans and experts, so it was the move to the newer initiatives like the @homes and also the very ambitious new media plans.

We were running with a much higher degree of risk on the new media functionality than we ever could have run on the broadcast side. … We never could have afforded that amount of risk on the broadcast side. You can push the limit more, in some cases if you planned on making 100 clips for the Web and you only made 75, no one really knows about the 25 that are missing.

It's not like when you're supposed to come on the air at 8 o'clock in the broadcast world. It's very different on the Web, but that's what allowed us to push the envelope. … You can run with more risk, be more ambitious, be more aggressive, and we were.

TV TECHNOLOGY: And was the new media content and delivery a tough task?

MAZZA: The new media stuff was very hard to get working, I think we were still coding through at least the first half of the Games [and] still updating various bits of code at least through mid-Games.

That was so new to everybody, just the amount of tonnage that was flowing through those systems and the amount of time it took to process all the clips. … I think they were making about 300 clips per day out of the highlights factory and that was before they then got flipped to the various formats that were made from each, so each of those clips had 10 or 12 different formats. … The Web site had three or four different resolutions, SD VOD, HD VOD, Amazon, mobile phone releases. … The list is long.

Between the Omneons, between AnyStream, between Castify, between Blue Order, Digital Rapids and MOG … all this software and hardware had to work together, in a hurry.

That was probably the most troublesome thing, but I tried to compartmentalize that so even if the needle was in the red there, it wouldn't make everybody on the broadcast side freak out because they had enough of their own complexity. We kept it compartmentalized so the different areas didn't get each other worked up.

TV TECHNOLOGY: In what ways was this the first true HD Olympics, from NBC's perspective?

MAZZA: The big difference was that in Torino we didn't really have time to retool everything, so we had an HD layer on top of the existing SD layer. … we had both sets of signals travelling around wherever they were needed. This time it actually got easier because we eliminated the SD router, got a much bigger HD router, and have all the signals travelling around only in HD, which is actually less complicated than the dual layers.

The only downside is if we have an SD user we have to downconvert it at the user side. So if a show like "Access Hollywood" wanted to work in SD, they would use an HD router output and it would get downconverted right before it went to them. Working with a single layer was considerably simpler. Because we came out of a Winter Olympics and we had what we consider the long cycle of planning—27 months between a Winter Games and a Summer, instead of about 16 months going from Summer to Winter—we had time to re-tool.

TV TECHNOLOGY: Would you say that HD has caught up with the workflow and production process you put in place in Athens?

MAZZA: It's getting close. We are now tying the EVS servers together with Avids as files, which we had just achieved before we switched to HD. IMX 30, 40 and 50 had just become compatible among different vendors as an SD format, and the fact that EVS now has the DNX or VC 3 [Avid] compression allows us to move files from EVS to Avid. … I would say we are just getting back to where we were at the peak of SD.

TV TECHNOLOGY: What specific tech or production issues do you think need to be addressed in HD?

MAZZA: We still chased our fair share of clicks and pops and compression anomalies. Some big strides have been made in terms of file formats. The fact that our Avids and our EVSs were moving files back and forth was a huge thing for us.

The fact that the XDCAM Long GOP is being edited in the Avids is a huge thing. Two years ago none of that stuff was working, so that's a big step forward.

TV TECHNOLOGY: And in the bigger HD picture?

MAZZA: My overarching concern for HD is that I wish the people at home could see the same pictures we were seeing in the studio.

I honestly don't know if there's going to be an ATSC Generation 2 but TV stations' ATSC compression, after you take out the multiplex channels or after the cable companies squash it down below the 19 Mbps—if you're down to 15 or 14 Mbps or certainly anything below that, it really has a hard time with fast action sports.

It's fine for 24P film episodics, but it just doesn't cut it on sports. As far as feeling like we have our feet under us in terms of HD as an industry, when the people at home can see what we see in the studio we'll be doing great, and then of course a lot of people say we'll be moving on to some other format—3D, 1080P, or Ultra HD—I hope I will be retired.

TV TECHNOLOGY: And what about 5.1 audio?

MAZZA: That's the other thing that still has to come a long way, surround sound. We made some huge strides here with surround sound—the host broadcaster did a great job, our guys did a great job, we all learned a lot. The first few days were rough trying to sort it out because it was new to everybody, but all of our live content on the network was discrete surround sound from the venue all the way through here to New York, yet our edited pieces or anything that went to a tape machine or an EVS was generally upmixed after the fact with the Linear Acoustics [processor], which worked great. To make that all work we had 16 channels of audio moving around between the venues and throughout the IBC.

I think in Vancouver we'll be close to tackling the editing in the EVS, on the surround side, because the IP Edit (software) allows us to do an eight channel dissolve without even breaking a sweat.

But our editors barely have enough time to get the shows turned around as it is, let alone with the added complexity of editing in surround. So we're still searching for the answer on that—as we're approaching the point where the edit rooms can handle it, now I'm wondering if the editors have time to handle it, and unless the editors are all going to go to audio mixing school, it may be asking a lot of them to get the pictures right in a big hurry, and six channels of audio, plus a two channel down mix. That remains a big question for those of us who do fast turnaround editing in the field.

TV TECHNOLOGY: What were the important factors related to the overall IBC facility that improved between Torino and Beijing?

MAZZA: We had a couple of key initiatives we were pushing for. We were trying to make everything smaller, cheaper, and faster to set up. We went from 13 to eight RIBs (the portable racks-in-a-box infrastructure NBC has used since the Sydney Games in 2000) so in the conversion to HD we actually shaved off five RIBs.

However we had four studios in Athens and here we have two, so this (RIB reduction) is also tied in to the at-home initiative where we have control rooms in New York and in Florida. (We shaved off RIBs associated with) those two studios, one of the tape RIBs was eliminated because the XDCAM record decks are so small, we consolidated all of our Intercom from a full RIB to a half a RIB, the two big monitor walls you see in BOC [the Broadcast Operations Center], which were monitors on the front of RIBs before, are now multiviewer displays. Taking out our old SD 300x300 router eliminated a lot of rack space. Now it's an 800x800 router, more than doubled in size, and it fits in one rack. ... It's amazing because it also was central in the changeover to HD and it went from 10 racks to one rack.

TV TECHNOLOGY: And this re-tooling had benefits beyond space?

MAZZA: Yes. We worked very hard to get all the remaining RIBs closer to each other so we could make it within the coax distance of HD, because the HD signals don't go as far on coax as SD signals. And by moving them all closer together most of the harnesses could be permanent, which means they can get coiled back into one of the RIBs when we travel, after the prefabrication and testing process.

That saved a fair amount of set up time. If you had a 600-foot run to a far away RIB, you'd have to run that cable on site, terminate both ends, test it, label it, all that. We really worked hard to make it faster to set up and reduce the piece count.

I like to say that in Sydney, when we began the five games transportable idea, for us was Olympics 2.0, the re-invention of how to do an Olympics broadcast without starting from scratch each time.

Beijing was our Olympics 3.0—now we got a second crack at the transportable infrastructure. We learned from all the things we did the first time and we did them better. We condensed all the technical stuff into one core block, some of it is because we had to because HD won't travel as far on cable, and the other thing is that we had a goal to reduce our set up time by 25 percent. We used to have an eight week set up time, and we reduced that to six weeks. The way we made good on that was having fewer RIBs, having them closer, and reducing the piece count. We analyzed the whole transportable travelling circus and tried to make it smaller, faster, cheaper, lighter.

TV TECHNOLOGY: What's next in Vancouver? London?

MAZZA: Well, it's a little closer time-zone-wise so that should be easier, they speak English which will make some things a little easier, we can drive our mobile units there, we don't have to have 22 HD standards converters there because it's 60 Hz, it's 110 volts.

I'm sure the new media will keep growing, I can't imagine us covering any more competitions because in a Winter Games there's not nearly as much competition so we really cover it all, and because we're in the short cycle now between a Summer and Winter Games we won't re-tool anything significant, we'll just tweak what we didn't like this time.

But as much as I say that now, we've never done a Games without changing a lot. At least 50 percent of each Games has been different enough than the last that we've had to do some part of a redesign or a re-do to get it to matchup with whatever the new production or programming demands are.

Vancouver, as far as the BOC and the transmission area, I can't imagine using all of this capacity there. I hope we're just going to use half of it. I can't imagine us getting anywhere close to the level of in- and outbound feeds we had here.

London, I have no idea. It's already shaping up to be quite expensive. I think London will look like Beijing, but I couldn't have told you four years ago that this Games would look like it does.

TV TECHNOLOGY: What's the takeaway for you?

MAZZA: Don't be afraid to shoot big, but be careful about it. We shot ambitiously on the new media side, and with a lot of hard work and a lot of servers, and a lot of software and a lot of reboots, we were incredibly pleased with the results.

On the broadcast side we were quite aggressive in the whole @Home plan. Although it wasn't earth-shattering in any of the technologies used, the sheer quantity of it was staggering.

This is my tenth Games. We've never done as much as we've done here, and at the same time I don't think we've ever had as many successes as we've had here.

However, it honestly comes down more to the people than anything else.. If we didn't have all the veterans here, we couldn't possibly do as much as we do. In all areas … logistical, operational, technical … everybody here was an Olympian.

On the opening day of the SMPTE annual conference (Oct. 27-30 in Hollywood), Dave Mazza and other NBC staffers will provide a comprehensive look into the systems created to broadcast the Beijing games both on air and online.