View From the Top: Dave Mazza, SVP of Engineering, NBC Olympics

When it comes to the technology required to bring the Olympic Games to viewers in the U.S., Dave Mazza has all the answers — or at least knows where to find them. The SVP of engineering for NBC Olympics has worked on 11 Olympic Games, and, while his expertise has grown exponentially through the years, leading to smoother setups and faster ramp-up times, his non-stop creativity constantly brings new challenges to the broadcast. From hundreds of hours of live streaming to the highlights factory and a growing arsenal of HD equipment deployed to each of the venues, Mazza’s Olympic mind does not sit still, and NBC’s broadcast of the Vancouver Games demonstrates that creative drive for 17 consecutive days.

First All-HD Winter Olympics
The Vancouver Olympics are the first Winter Games to be produced fully in high definition, and, oddly, that has made life easier on Mazza.

“In Torino, all the hard-to-cable venues were 16:9 anamorphic SD, so now everything’s HD,” he explains. “It’s quite honestly easier not to have both. In Torino, we had to teach people about stretching, and that was always tough.”

Vancouver is also the first full surround-sound Winter Games, and Mazza is pumping 16 channels of audio distribution throughout the NBC plant. Bobsledding, figure skating, and even curling have never sounded better.

Living Live
Although NBC tape-delays many of the Games’ marquee events for ratings purposes, the engineering teams treat almost every event as if it were live, which makes for a better production.

“If they’re live, it’s easier than any tape delay, so, if it’s a quick turnaround, they still call it live to tape,” Mazza says. “In the edit room, they’ll maybe clean up the head and the tail or combine one heat in speed skating with another heat, but the call comes in as if live. When they know they’re going to show Bode’s skiing run, for example, they call that live because it sounds better. A lot of the producers prefer to have the call live to tape, even if there isn’t that fast turnaround.”

Given the weather delays and postponements that have plagued these Games, there is also always the chance that what was originally scheduled as a tape-delayed event becomes live, so producers prefer their teams to treat the events as live.

“There’s always the chance at any of these venues that they’ll come to you live,” Mazza explains. “If weather delays something outdoors, we might go to speed skating live, so they might call it live to tape even if they think they’re not live.”

A Shadow Over the Start
The first week of an Olympics is always hard, but the first day of this Games was harder than most.

“We build to this huge crescendo for the Opening Ceremonies, so much attention is focused there as we’re adding stuff at the last minute, and then the Georgian luger died, and the energy level just dropped,” Mazza says. “We had to change around the front end of the Ceremonies show because we didn’t want to come on the air with all this hoopla, so the first half-hour of the show was all about the accident, but they also used the news guys for that.”

NBC News’ Brian Williams delivered the report in order to make a distinction between reporting the news of the accident and celebrating the entertainment value of sports. For this Olympic Games, NBC News’ broadcast headquarters are located inside the International Broadcast Center, just across the hall from NBC Olympics, making that Opening Ceremonies tag team much easier to pull off.

“That’s another collaboration that worked out really well with those guys being here, down the hall,” Mazza says.

Simplify and Solidify
Mazza’s mantra is smaller, cheaper, and lighter, and his team worked hard to simplify the workflows that worked well for the first all-HD Olympics in Beijing but were long and complex.

“I did work hard on simplifying stuff and going smaller in the overall footprint,” he says. “Part of it was, we went to a Winter Olympics, where there’s only half as many events, so we could do just one control room here.”

In Beijing, NBC Olympics was testing the waters with its highlights factory and streaming operations, so there was no playbook to follow.

“We made up the highlights factory from zero, and we learned from that,” Mazza says. “This time around, we made it simple and easier to turn on. We worked hard to simplify some of the things that were really complex in China.”

Deploying Miranda Kaleido-X multiviewers in NBC’s Broadcast Operations Center saved Mazza’s team a tremendous amount of cable and helped speed the setup. Scaling from a Summer Games to a Winter Games also helped accelerate the preparation time, since all of the gear had to fit in a smaller space than would be available for a Summer Games.

“Honestly, the setup was unnervingly smooth, to the degree that we thought something bad was going to happen,” Mazza says. “Then we got on the air, had bad weather, event postponements, fiber being cut on the mountain, and bad cables, and it very quickly comes unglued. It’s like a house of cards.”

A Dream Team
Luckily, the 1,500 most talented television professionals in the industry are working around the clock in Vancouver to keep NBC’s shows on the air, online, and on mobile and keep that card house standing. This year, Mazza says, because NBC needed fewer people, the producers and directors had a larger pool to choose from.

“The result is we have a really high caliber of people working here,” he explains. “This really is the cream-of-the-crop veterans, and we couldn’t do all the crazy things that we do on a compressed time schedule without those veterans. The little shows require a lot of weird coordination and a tremendous amount of effort. The direction usually falls to a few people.”

Of the personnel who traveled for NBC, Mazza estimates that 85% are veterans of previous Games and most of the engineering, audio, and technical managers have done five Games with the NBC team.

“We just couldn’t do it without so many guys that are familiar with us,” he says. “They devote anywhere from 40 days to two years to this.”

Throughout NBC’s coverage over the past two weeks, that devotion clearly shows.