OLYMPIC SPECIAL REPORT: Inside the IBC

Visits to NBC s Olympic broadcast center always cause a case of d j vu and for good reason. From one games to the next the physical layout and even size (75,000 sq. ft.) remains consistent. This year, however, things are different as NBC completes a massively challenging and risky move to HD.

The move to HD has transformed NBC s Olympic broadcast center in Torino. Unlike 2004, when NBC had a separate production crew and truck for its HD feed (which relied primarily on the host-broadcasters HD feed) NBC this year is creating a single HD feed and then deriving the standard definition broadcast from that HD stream.

Most of Torino s competition venues will be produced in true HD by the host broadcaster and we are upconverting the broadcast to 16:9 from any venues where the host broadcaster is not providing an HD signal, says David Neal, NBC Olympics executive VP and NBC Sports executive producer. Those 16:9 SD venues are the skiing ones that would have required more than 100 HD cameras combined, a need that would have exceeded the current HD camera count in all of Europe.

Figure skating, hockey, speed skating, ski jumping, aerial skiing and mogul skiing as well as the opening and closing ceremonies will be broadcast in HD and everyone is learning new production techniques and also getting familiar with new gear. Sony 1080p-capable cameras, the world s largest HD version of the Avid ISIS storage system, and a new wireless HD system from UK-based Link Systems are among the top technologies that will enable the HD coverage to become reality.

Going to HD isn t business as usual or easy, says Dave Mazza, NBC Olympics SVP, engineering. My hope is we won t be chasing technical problems like having a signal coming in one end and not coming out the other.

The HD difference
It doesn t take long for a visitor to the facility in the IBC to notice the HD difference. From the moment you walk through the door a 50-inch Sony SXRD flat-panel screen greets any newcomer, displaying HD coverage viewers back home in the U.S. are watching.

And then there are the less-visible changes. Two Avid ISIS systems, for example, gives NBC the ability to store all of the incoming HD feeds on a more centralized server system so that editors can quickly locate the material they need to access to build the primetime broadcasts. We have a few LAN shares so tat Telemundo and Access Hollywood have their own storage but other than that all the HD is on the ISIS, says Mazza. More than 96 TB of storage will be available for use.

NBC s approach to its coverage of the games will be similar to that in Athens. Because the day s events will happen hours ahead of NBC s primetime coverage the vast majority of the coverage will be recorded live to tape. That introduces its own set of challenges because, unlike a live event that is simply played to air, a pre-taped event requires editing. So for NBC one of the biggest challenges will be juggling the editing schedules.

Most of the editing will still be done on 11 Avid Adrenaline nonlinear editing systems but Mazza says about 10 Trusty Old Edit Suites or TOES will be used. Each one includes a Sony BE-9100 editor, a Graham-Patten GPS-8000 audio console, Sony MFS-2000 HD production switcher and a 4 Sony HDCAM VTRs, a four-channel EVS disk store and audio gear.

Producers don t want to give up the linear workflow, says Mazza. Feeds will be available to the TOES via HD videotape and also the EVS server system. The latter will record incoming live feeds from the different venues and make them available to the TOES systems so that editors can cut that material with previous videotaped material.

Work arounds
The move from SD VTRs to HD VTRS is causing some work arounds. In previous games pre-taped material was stored on Sony eVTR tapes, a format the automatically created low-resolution proxy video clips for editing. Editors and producers could then use Blue Order s asset management software to locate a desired clip in a low-resolution format without having to search through hours of tape.

But Sony HDCAM decks don t build those proxies so NBC was required to have personal computers dedicated to creating the Blue Order proxies. The proxies reference high-resolution material located on the Avid ISIS server and as an edit decision list is put together the high-resolution versions of the clips can be pulled together and assembled. Canadian-based Cyradis is providing the logging automation machine control software that will help editors locate the tape in the system that has the desired clip.

The new HD XT-2 EVS disk recorders will also help make editor s jobs easier. Four-channel and six-channel units are in Torino with the four-channel units capable of approximately 15 hours of HD storage using 146 GB drives and the six-channel units capable of 30 hours using 300 GB drives. All of those units will be networked on EVS SportNet that has 1.5 GBps of throughput via SDTI.

One of the core areas of the facility is the graphics production and services area that handles graphics and nonlinear editing. An 11-seat Avid ISIS system with 40 TB of storage will help the NLE-based editing team use HD Avid NewsCutters, Dekocast still stores and Thunder character generators to build the HD broadcasts.

HD advances

The facility s broadcast operations center, which handles the movement of HD signals throughout the facility, shows just how far HD technology has come. It still features a massive legacy 320×320 non-HD routing switcher that takes up multiple equipment racks. A new Sony HD router, however, can handle 270 Mbps signals and has 256×256 crosspoints in about one third of the rack space as the SD router.

Five years ago I was in Japan and one of the engineers said they couldn t imagine an HD router with crosspoints bigger than 32×32, says Mazza. And now we have this router in half the rack space. It s amazing that it got that much smaller.

With respect to transmission to the U.S. NBC will once again use AT&T to prove all of NBC s Olympic transmission services. Encoding and decoding gear from Tandberg will also be used in both Torino and the U.S. We have 1,000 Mbps of transmission capability to the U.S. vs. 155 Mbps for the 2004 Salt Lake City games, says Mazza. The cost per megabyte is much lower and we ll primarily have three HD paths plus another 10 for SD. HD content will move at about 90-100 Mbps while SD content will travel at 20 Mbps.

Redundancy is a top priority, with all of the transmission paths diversified over different satellites or fibers and even home offices in case of failure on either the path or at the receive point. Another big change from Sydney is that three-quarters of the transmission is through the ground or underwater, giving us a lot more bits for the dollar, says Mazza.

Aspect ratio challenges

Mazza says he expects the biggest problem will be chasing aspect ratio problems as personnel get used to delivering a broadcast that will be seen in two different ratios. Understanding letterboxing vs. anamorphic vs. 16:9 vs. true HD can be hard to get your head around, he says. And everyone, especially camerapeople, have to understand that you need to compromise for the framing. While 90% of the audience is still SD you can t have garbage on the wings.

Another challenge is dealing with the conversion of the TV signals from 50Hz to 60 Hz. We did a lot of tests to determine what happens to the picture when it is converted from 50-60 Hz, says Mazza. And when the ATSC compression systems at the individual stations squash the HD signal down to less than 18 Mbps there are some pretty significant motion artifacts that occur.

And then there is audio. NBC will broadcast all of the NBC coverage in Surround Sound, recording the Surround Sound channels as four discrete channels and then encoding the ambient channels using Dolby Pro Logic 2 for SD viewers and 5.1 Dolby for HD viewers.

Mazza says the announcers will not be encoded in Pro Logic 2, a step that he says will prevent the Surround Sound matrix from becoming too center heavy. We have special software that is built into the Dolby decoders which spreads the audio focus into the left and right channels, giving a wider image, he says. Audio mixers will also listen through surround sound decoders so they can monitor the surround mix.

UP NEXT IN THE SVG OLYMPIC SPECIAL REPORT: The Venues.