The Olympics Behind The Olympics

You’re probably reading this as you finalize your plans for NAB in Las Vegas. You booked your travel, with an itinerary that spans maybe a couple days. And NAB is likely only one of the stops in those plans. But even seasoned travelers can’t quite imagine what it’s like to put on an 18-day event, with 2,914 Olympic athletes, halfway around the world.

I’m talking, of course, about the 3,000 people at NBC Olympics who flawlessly delivered 2,400 hours of Winter Games in February -- about 126 hours each day, and more than any previous Winter Games. Across 7,000 miles. With a 14-hour time difference.

These are the same people, it’s worth noting, who headed to PyeongChang a week or so after they wrapped up a little sporting event we know as SuperBowl LII (go Eagles!), in Minnesota.

Viewers tend to think of the Olympics as something that happens every two years. But for the people who bring the Games to our screens -- from on-air talent to production, engineering to IT, and everyone in between -- it’s a considerably shorter timeframe. Their travel itineraries stretch across weeks and months, not days, and almost always require a passport. Talk about “Passion.Connected”! (That was the slogan for this year’s Winter Games. Get it? P-C? PyeongChang?)

The point is, it takes a certain kind of person to make a life commitment like that. I say “life commitment,” because most of the people on the NBC Olympics team are repeat performers themselves. There’s a magic that happens, when your job involves telling the stories of the athletes who train their bodies at a level the rest of us would consider utter torture.

There’s a magic that happens for those of us who build the technologies that power the Olympic Games, too. It’s partly the challenge of incorporating more and more IP and cloud techniques, designed to simplify the delivery of live and on-demand video, and partly the sense of excitement that comes with working with such a uniquely talented lineup as the NBC Olympics team. This was our 10th year as a technology partner with NBC Olympics, and the technological trajectory over that decade is worth a much longer article!

How Much Gear Did It Take to Put on the Winter Games?

Now think about the amount of gear it takes. Gear that ensures a reliable production of live and file-based Olympics coverage, with a deployment model designed to be rapidly configured. Gear that stretches the notion of scalability -- in this case, of IP-based infrastructure -- to deliver premium content between multiple venues, in South Korea, and the NBC Olympics properties, in the U.S.

That’s where we come in, at least in part (NBC Olympics counts many of us as technology partners.) Cisco eats, lives, works and breathes in the world of IP infrastructure. It was IP technology and routing that enabled the remote Olympic venues to work directly with NBC Olympics studios and control rooms in PyeongChang and Stamford, lowering the equipment footprint in Korea while supporting the capability to send more content back to the U.S.

Another and super cool part of our role in this year’s Games was to keep the 3,000-person NBC Olympics teams, connected. Connected in real-time, using Cisco’s Collaboration Endpoints in the broadcast areas, the athlete’s village, and the venues.

To bridge the distances, NBC Olympics installed Endpoints in the hallways, in their facilities at the PyeongChang International Broadcast Center and at their HQ in Connecticut. The intent was to generate a real-time, always on “water cooler effect,” connecting NBC Olympics staff with high-fidelity audio and video. Happy to report: It worked!

Here’s another behind-the-scenes factoid: It took 99 sea containers to carry all the gear it took to put on this year’s Winter Games. Part of what was inside is known as “RIBs,” for “Racks-in-a-Box.” I’m not sure how many RIBs held Cisco equipment, but, we made the trek in some of those 99 containers.

The RIBs were originally shipped from Rio de Janeiro, where the previous Summer Games were held, to Stamford, Connecticut, where NBC Olympics is headquartered. There, they underwent rigorous testing, modeling and configurations, with a goal of being completely ready (including a significant climate difference) ahead of time. RIBs essentially solve for faster, cleaner setup, from one Olympic Games to the next.

Needless to say, it takes a great deal of confidence to send more content back to the U.S. than any previous Winter Olympics, with essentially the same technology and operational footprint as the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. You need to know that the broadcast and IT infrastructure will perform reliably, at massive scale.

It’s an infrastructure boundary that’s blurring, which is a trend you’ll assuredly see at this week’s show. We’re living and working in a moment in time when new levels of trust, between traditional broadcast engineering, and traditional IT, are vital. Simply put, there’s a lot more IT in broadcast these days, and there’s a lot more broadcast in IT.

This is the 10th year Cisco partnered with NBC Olympics, to connect the necessary backchannels of “storytellers,” behind the scenes. To say that it’s an honor would be a masterpiece of understatement. I’m repeatedly awestruck by the camaraderie, professionalism and raw tech talent that flows, when putting on something as big as the Olympics. It’s as demonstrably impressive as the athletes we’re there to capture and convey to the world.

What happens next? Japan. Those 99 containers will float to Tokyo next, which, incidentally, is where NBC first broadcast the Olympics, in 1964. There, they’ll be received yet again by the behind-the-scenes army of NBC “Tech-Olympians.” They’ll get there months and weeks ahead of the Opening Ceremonies, on July 24, 2020. To the everyday viewer, that’s 28 months from now. An eternity! To the teams who make all that show up on your TV, tablet, smart phone, though, work is already underway.

This is the fourth in a six-part blog series preceding the 2018 NAB Show. Click here to read more about what broadcasters will be talking about at this year's show. 

About the Author: Roger Sherwood is a seasoned digital media leader, known for his ability to transform new and transitioning media sectors from chaos to cohesion. A degreed electrical engineer, his passion is the crisp communication of complex technologies -- like the vast landscape of Internet Protocol. A relentless advocate of customer experience, he’s known for an unshakable belief in questioning things, and pursing the power of simplification. Currently, his mission within the overall IP transition now facing broadcasters is to build bridges between traditional broadcast and IT people.