NBC Prepares To Brave the Elements at 136th Kentucky Derby

The Kentucky Derby is known for many things — the mint juleps, the rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home,” the big fancy hats — but thunderstorms are not one of them. That might change on Saturday May 1, when the forecast at Churchill Downs calls for an 80% chance of rain and violent thunderstorms. While this may drench the 150,000-plus spectators, NBC Sports is confident it won’t dampen the Derby telecast.

“Think about the amount of chaos when you have animals running on dirt with mud everywhere and cameramen who are holding pointers to the sky that are nothing more than high-tech lightning rods,” says David Michaels, who will be directing the Derby for NBC Sports. “The potential for chaos is there, but we run through a lot of scenarios … and our meeting with [Churchill Downs] today involved all kinds of contingency plans. The track assures us that the Kentucky Derby will be run on Saturday. That we know.”

The NBC Sports crew has seen this before. The 2004 running of the Derby was fraught with rain but went off without a hitch, and the 2010 incarnation is expected to do the same.

The Derby Setup
NBC will use NEP’s ND3 truck (NBC’s Sunday Night Football truck) for the 31-camera shoot. ND3 is based on a Sony MVS8000A switcher and is outfitted with a Calrec Alpha audio console, eight six-channel EVS live-slow-motion systems, and a variety of Sony HDC1500 and HDC1000 cameras. Also on hand for NBC will be two super-slo-mo cameras and five wireless cameras: four handhelds and a Steadicam.

As for audio, there will be approximately 36 effects mics throughout the course, with the majority placed on the front stretch. Five jockeys will be fitted with mics to capture that sounds of the hooves hitting the track, and four gate mics will capture the excitement at the start. In addition, all talent will be equipped with high-powered wireless mics.

Changes at Churchill Downs
The biggest change on the engineering side for NBC Sports this year is the decision to lay down TAC-12 fiber, rather than the combination of fiber and copper-lined SMPTE 311 cable used in the past. The switch will go a long way in preventing rain-related failures during the production.

“As far as setup goes, the rain doesn’t really affect us because we’re doing a total-fiber show here, so I don’t have to worry about copper shorting out or anything like that,” says John Roche, senior technical manager, NBC Sports/NEP. “By using fiber, I’m not going to have as much of a failure rate as I would if I was using copper. In the past, we had a combination of fiber and SMPTE, which is fiber but still has copper cable so stuff can go wrong.”

NBC Sports was also forced to change a few camera positions following Churchill Downs’ installation of lights around the track this year. Roche and company relocated several cameras to avoid the light poles, which would have posed “a major issue” for the previous positions, according to Roche.

While the new lights may have posed a challenge to Roche and have been lambasted by many racing purists, they may end up saving the day on Saturday, should the weather prove uncooperative.

“One of the interesting things [producer Sam Flood] brought up was, if there was a flood [in the afternoon], now that they have the lights here at Churchill Downs, they could run the race at any time,” says Michaels.

Blimp vs. Plane
One casualty of the inclement weather may be the blimp used for aerial shots. Although the decision will not be made by NBC until Saturday, blimps are usually grounded in the face of any major rain or wind.

However, there is still a plan B. NBC has used a plane in place of a blimp for aerial coverage during several other sports productions, including last year’s Preakness and the snow-covered 2009 NHL Winter Classic. Just in case, NBC has put a plane on hold for Saturday, should the need arise.

“We’ve had a lot of luck with football and some other shows where the plane would fly in a lot worse conditions than the blimp would,” says Roche. “The plane is actually one of our key shots that we initiated some time ago. It gives the viewer at home a better angle of the race than anything else out there on the market.”

A Lot More Than Just a Race
In reality, the actual race is only a small part of NBC telecast, taking up roughly two minutes of the three hours of coverage. When NBC’s broadcast begins at 4 p.m. on Saturday, the coverage will focus on the “spectacle and pageantry,” according to Flood. As the show gets closer to race time, NBC will transition into more race-based segments that focus on the horses, jockeys, trainers, and owners.

The Derby is one of only three major sporting events that draw more female viewers than male viewers (the Winter and Summer Olympics are the other two), and NBC Sports has made efforts to broaden this audience even further. In addition to red-carpet coverage on Saturday, the NBC Sports crew will handle shows for the Today show as well as NBC Universal partners Bravo, CNBC, and the Weather Channel.

“We’ve got a lot of entities of NBC properties that we’re supporting here,” says Roche. “ A lot of elements are being shoved at me all at one time. It can be pretty hectic, but it really is great.”