The Olympics & NBC

Less Filling, Works Great
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Less Filling, Works Great

ATHENS, GREECE

In glancing over the facts wrapped around NBC's upcoming Olympics coverage, any number of daunting statistics strikes the eye. During the 17 days of coverage extending from Aug. 13-29, the Peacock Network, along with its offspring including MSNBC, CNBC, USA, Bravo, Telemundo, and its HD platform, will average more than 70 hours of coverage per day, and will total approximately 1,210 hours. That figure, nearly triple the coverage of the Sydney Games, dwarfs the 171.5 hours broadcast during the Atlanta Games just eight years ago.

TEAMWORK

But even though the network is bringing all its broadcasting guns to bear on the Athens Games, David Mazza, senior vice president, engineering for NBC Olympics, said that among the network's most remarkable achievements in Athens has been its deployment of human resources, both planning and operational.

"We've been shaking our heads wondering how we've done this," he said, "with only a few more people than we had in Sydney."

On the planning side, much of that can be attributed to teamwork, especially since NBC launched the multi-Games strategy in 2000.

"A lot of us have been together for three or four Games, so many of the same people are around," he said. "Since we've been largely kept intact, we've been able to refine our processes, making them more efficient for planning on so many platforms with less people."

The fleet approach isn't just an attempt to save on airfares to Greece, but part of a concerted effort to streamline the tally of onsite personnel for future Olympics coverage.

"By 2010, we've committed to the IOC to bring fewer people to the Games, and have them working back in the states," Mazza said.

While the single largest challenge for NBC will be the sheer volume of the broadcasts, initiatives to streamline production and meet its IOC promises will be deployed with a keen eye. Prime among them is the asset-management, scheduling, and storage system-a collaborative effort by Sony, Aurora, Ontario-based Cyradis Technology Group and Germany's Blue Order-being unveiled for the Games.

Driving the project was the tremendous amount of tape footage captured during an event as multi-venued as the Olympics, sometimes in excess of 20,000 hours.

MANAGING COVERAGE

"There was an attempt to try to get a better view as to what was on all these tapes, in hopes that people could, both during and after the Games, be more efficient in using them," said Matt Adams, director of technology, NBC Olympics. (See "Faster, Higher Stronger-And More Storage, TV Technology, Sept. 3, 2003 for more information on the project.)

Sony is NBC's major broadcast equipment supplier for the Games, and the network is depending on new advances in metadata to help manage its extensive Olympic coverage. Recent advancements in Sony's e-VTR (MSWM2000/1 MPEG IMX Editing Recorder), which offer the ability to generate low-resolution, frame-accurate, MPEG-4 proxy footage, including video, audio, and timecode information, add the metadata functionality vital to the project.

"Feeds coming in to the IBC [International Broadcast Centre] are recorded on IMX tape and the low-res proxies are streamed down," said John Garmendi, Sony national account manager for NBC Universal.

"We're giving people more efficient access to all the raw material generated at the Olympics, and since IMX tapes can be in excess of three hours long, people can get a head start on whatever they're trying to do," Adams said.

"We are going to be able to catch almost all the incoming feeds to the IBC at any one time," Mazza added. "Making the recorded material available to as many people as possible without having to get hold of a tape is the primary reason for the proxy project."

Ultimately, Mazza said the use of low-res proxy promises to streamline the necessity of on-venue personnel, and allows a migration to both a tapeless workflow and HD.

"One of the next steps is to send the proxy across the ocean, and make some of the editorial decisions and the actual editing stateside," he said.

In addition to scheduling the records and router feeds to the individual IMX e-VTRs, the Cyradis CTG-1000 VMS (video management system) catches the low-res proxy files as they emerge from the e-VTR, sends them to an Isilon IQ disk array and hands it off to Blue Order's media archive system, which acts as the central asset management platform. "It takes the low-res proxy and allows editors and journalists to begin browsing those proxies on the desktop," Garmendi said.

The Blue Order system also integrates NBC's legacy and Cyradis automation information, while registering all incoming feeds during the ingest process, making them available for browsing, retrieval and EDL creation.

"The asset-management part of it allows the high-res video to be stored on a Sony SAIT PetaSite system," Garmendi said of the data tape robotics system. Available since June of last year, the PetaSite system, a data-tape robotics system designed for content management, data backup, and enterprise data-storage applications, can accommodate storage applications up to 29.0 Petabytes (compressed) or 11.2 Petabytes (native).

As part of the workflow-in-asset-management strategy, NBC will also use a Sony tape label system known as telefile.

Used primarily for storing metadata, the labels can be read by the IMX machine or by a handheld telefile label reader.

"It goes on the spine of the videocassette and the label is an RFID-like device," Garmendi said. "NBC will be able to use them to store metadata about the contents of the cassettes and read them at a later date."

TESTING

The Games will also see a couple of XDCAM implementations, part of an ongoing field test pilot program for the system, which began shipping in 2003. Both NBC Sports and NBC News will put the system through its paces. The systems, which include the PDW-510 DVCAM and the PDW-530 MPEG IMX/DVCAM optical-disc camcorders, the PDW-1500 optical-disc compact deck, the PDW-3000 optical-disc studio deck and the PDW-V1 optical-disc mobile deck, are capable of recording both high resolution and lower resolution, but frame-accurate proxy audio and video.

Proxy information can then be transferred at up to 30 times faster-than-real-time.

"It dovetails very nicely into the whole e-VTR/MXF workflow aspect, since the XDCAM systems' proxy video is the same format as the e-VTR," Garmendi said.

Sony's long-standing relationship with NBC means its gear will get a workout at the Olympics. Aside from the three XDCAM systems in use, MPEG IMX camcorders, and several HD-capable 525/625 switchable Sony DVS-9000 switchers, the Games will also see approximately 64 Sony LUMA LMD170WS LCD professional monitors, and three LUMA LMD230WS monitors used, with most of the 170's to be used in graphics workstations at the IBC as well as at the venues, and some also present in the HD feeds in the monitor wall.

"It's very much a two-way relationship in that we are working with NBC well ahead of the next Games in order to develop and implement features and changes to products they think would be useful to them. But at the same time, they understand we are a manufacturer that needs to sell products to a much broader market. They are very aware that the applications and features we develop together will benefit both members of the relationship," Garmendi said.

As expected, vendor logos will be present in any number of stripes: An ADAM matrix intercom system from Telex will be deployed in super-sized fashion consisting of an excess of 600 ports. Canon is providing all the lenses for NBC including the 86x1 and the new 100x1 lenses. More than 400 Panasonic DVCPRO VTRs (mostly AJ-SD955B/AJ-SD930B) and 200 camera/camcorder units comprised mainly of the AW-E800/AW-E600 and AJ-SDX900 will be used; and more than 2,000 BT-LS1400 monitors will be on display.

The House That Sarnoff Built will be relying on a number of mobile trucks during the Games, mostly from the eastern shores of the Atlantic, three of them London-based: Visions (which will include an HD truck for the separate high-def broadcasts), CTV, and BT (the latter for SNG). Cinevideo, of The Netherlands is also on the roster with two units.

SOUNDING GOOD

NBC will also be auditioning the Calrec Zeta 100 digital console in the form of two 56-channel consoles to complement the two 108-stereo-channel Alpha 100 consoles in the broadcast center. Already at home at NBC are the Q series consoles in the mobile trucks for gymnastics and the big S console series for athletics.

Bob Dixon, project manager for sound design for NBC Olympics, is optimistic about the Zeta 100 console based on previous Calrec experiences.

"For example, Audio-Technica has some nice stereo products in one casing, and their sound is so much more fun than simple mono," he said. "But it means a lot to the sound mixer, because where he used to have one fader he now has two. Unless the console has stereo inputs it becomes a real pain in the neck, with equalization and gain needing to be matched and it puts a lot of demand on the console. It was people like those at Calrec that listened to our needs and came through with beautiful audio consoles for mobile units with lots of stereo inputs."

Dixon will make substantial use of the 15-inch Audio-Technica AT815ST stereo shotgun and the 9-inch AT 835ST microphone. Depending on final frequency allocation, RF coverage will be courtesy of either the Sennheiser 3000 series receiver (EK3041) and the 5000 series transmitter (SK5012), or the new Sennheiser evolution wireless G2 series that debuted last January at NAMM. With a broader switching bandwidth (36 MHz), the evolution wireless G2 now makes 1,440 channels available to the user while using only 30 milowatts-an important consideration in a venue like Athens, where broadcasters find themselves restricted regarding power use on RF microphones.

"Their filters are so good, you can use only 30 milowatts and not feel like you wish you had 50," Dixon said.

RF challenges are no small consideration, according to Mazza.

"Trying to find frequencies that are available and have some commonality with what we use in the states is challenging, because our RF vendor [Bensalem-Pa.-based Total RF] is from the states," he said. "If we can't get frequencies that they have equipment for, it is very expensive for all of us to go and rent or buy equipment at these odd frequencies."

In this case, Mazza said their local RF contact George Gabritsos's familiarity with the RF landscape proved invaluable.

"He was able to negotiate with the equivalent of the FCC in Athens, called the EEET [an acronym for Epitropi Elenhou Ereynon Tileorasis, or TV Audience Research Control Committee], and was able to secure friendly frequencies to the U.S.-based equipment."

NBC will also be field-testing a few things in preparation for future Olympic venues. "I don't think of them as experiments, but things we have to do in the future and need proof of concept," Mazza said.

For example, a new digital flypack built by Pittsburgh-Pa.-based NEP Supershooters will be tested by the production staff at rowing in Athens for possible use in even more venues at the Beijing Games in 2008.

"We know in China we won't be able to afford to float all our trucks over there, so we are seeing if we can take what would typically be B and C level venues and fit them into these flypacks," he said.

RIBS ARE BACK

Athens will see a continuation of NBC's RIBS (Racks In a Box) system. Consisting of 20 equipment racks shock-mounted on a wheeled steel platform, a RIBS configuration is built up from I-beams and includes forklift slots for easy transport. Each RIB is a complete system pre-wired with rack-mounted equipment, allowing systems to be built and tested before arriving on-site. NBC began using the cost-saving systems during the Sydney Games, and started to see benefits during the Salt Lake City Games.

"It has really panned out well for us in terms of moving gear from place to place," Mazza said. "RIBS have also tremendously reduced the amount of setup time and hassle of retesting everything."

According to David Orr, senior vice president of west coast operations for AF Associates, which serves as lead integrator, the RIBS will not be returning to the states.

"Some of the construction this year was in preparation for HD at the [2006] Torino Winter Games, because the RIBS are going to a warehouse in Torino. So any later work that needs to be done on the RIBS will be done there."

To that end, Orr said NBC is renting a building in Torino to serve as its shop.

For Orr, adapting to the demands of the venue is part of the process.

"We went to Salt Lake and we downsized in Salt Lake and now we have to upsize again, because Athens is a larger venue," said Orr, who added that AF will begin working on the Winter Games this coming December.

"So now is when we have to start thinking about the HD infrastructure," he said. "And some of the equipment was changed in the system to accommodate that."