NBC Olympics IBC, Engineering Team Ready For Final Push This Week

By Ken Kerschbaumer

Preparations for the Beijing Olympics are entering the final stages, with venues having been locked down and security tightened. And while 95% of the NBC Olympics International Broadcast Center (IBC) facility has been completed and the testing and training phase has begun some venue build-outs still remain. “The NBC A-venue flypack builds are just underway and the NBC-C venue builds do not start until August 4 so there is a lot of venue load-in and building going on,” says Dave Mazza, NBC Olympics senior vice president of engineering.

Nearly 1,500 NBC Olympics production personnel are putting the finishing touches on Beijing facilities this week that will help the NBC Universal family of networks deliver more than 3,500 hours of HD programming during the Summer Olympics that begin on August 8.

“It kind of grew and snowballed,” says Dave Mazza of the programming effort. “Even table tennis aficionados will be able to see every bit of table tennis.”

While the production facilities are being completed NBC Olympics is busy ensuring that all of that content will reach the IBC and then U.S. viewers.

“All 36 AT&T DS-3 lines were handed over to NBC on Monday along with a single DS-3 on the AT&T uplink,” says Mazza. “AT&T and CNC did a great job getting all the circuits up as we now have 10-times the bandwidth we had in Sydney eight years ago.”

Tandberg encoders and decoders have been checked and rechecked as NBC will be sending 50 video feeds (plus 40 Web streams and 450 Mbps of data services) from Beijing to the U.S. More than 20 HD and 20 SD Snell and Wilcox Alchemists have also been installed.

While the move to all HD this year was a big project Mazza says that, ironically, the equipment is actually smaller than in year’s past. A key part of NBC Olympics’ set up is racks in a box or “RIBS” that can include up to 20 racks of equipment. The RIBS are pre-configured and pre-tested and then rolled into the International Broadcast Center, easing installation and testing.

“Our SD router used to take up half of a RIB which was 10 racks,” says Mazza. “But now the HD router has twice the inputs and outputs and takes up only one rack.” Only 8 RIBS will be used in Beijing, five less than in previous games. Smaller gear also meant the RIBS can be located closer together, cutting down on cabling and making it easier and faster to debug systems.

Mazza says that, to some degree, going all HD has made set-up easier. During the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, NBC Olympics had to build an HD layer on top of an SD layer. “Now there are no parallel paths for SD and HD,” he says. “We eliminated the SD layer.”

All told more than 46 EVS XT[2] and IP Director units, more than 400 TB of Omneon storage, 300 TB of Isilon Systems storage, and 250 TB of Avid ISIS storage will be on hand to ready content. “I was surprised by how much we went up in storage vs. Torino,” says Mazza.

Along with the storage is the editing and acquisition gear. More than 100 Sony cameras, 13 production switchers, 42 Avid editing systems, 175 of the new Sony HD XDCAM decks, and 32 HD XDCAM camcorders will be used to record and edit more than 35,000 hours of material.

Keeping track of 35,000 hours of material also requires solid asset management. Blue Order has been providing asset management technology to NBC Olympics since the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games and this year the system will tie low-resolution proxies to high-resolution deliverables. The system takes incoming statistics from the IOC and a company called Information & Display Systems (IDS) massages and parses out all the stats to the NBCOlympics.com Web site, Blue Order, and to the Streaming Factory for new media delivery, tying the stats to the material.

The Blue Order system can also build light-touch highlights using MOG solutions to conform the high-resolution material and publish them directly to the Anystream system or into the Avid system for a higher level of finish.

In an age of servers the use of XDCAM may be surprising but it offers some advantages. “The XDCAM decks give us eight channels of audio and a picture that will rival HDCAM, and we can put a $40 disk on the shelf that will last a long time” explains Mazza. “The picture is not as good as HDCAM SR but the cost of the machines and storage is considerably less and we think it is going to be a great ‘workhorse format’ for the sports broadcasting industry in the years to come.”

Almost as surprising as the use of non-server-based storage is the existence of seven “traditional old edit suites” or “TOES” that will complete linear-based editing, along with an EVS XT-2 server and a IP Director. “TOES are still the fastest way to turn around a sporting event until we can have a truly file-based workflow in and out of every edit room,” says Mazza. “Seven new EVS IP Edit stations will be deployed in China. We have high hopes for these units to be able to take of the relatively simple but very fast turnaround editing in the future.”

For Mazza there is one singular moment when all of the effort, and the reason behind it, becomes clear. “I get jazzed when we finally hit the air, and the John Williams music comes on and the HD scenics start,” after two years of planning and meetings and wiring and testing – to finally see all the thousands of pieces fall into place is pretty cool,” he says. “And now with the all-digital media offerings the viewer can really see and navigate to almost everything we have access to and steer to the content of their own liking.”

For NBC Olympics and viewers alike that sounds like a winning performance worthy of a medal.