Dave Mazza, SVP of engineering for NBC Olympics, is kind of busy right now. He’s overseeing the massive technical preparations so everything’s ready for the July 27 opening ceremonies in London. And while he and his team have years of experience covering the games, there’s always new technology to try out. “We always say that we will always use tried-and-true products to do the Olympics as we can’t afford the risk of something new. Then, when I look at the list of new stuff, it’s staggeringly long. We can’t pull off everything we’re trying to do with the tried and true. It’s just the nature of the beast.”
Mazza’s Olympic Task: 17 Days, 5,535 Hours
It’s an impressive number: 5,535. That’s the number of TV hours that NBCUniversal is promising to deliver to U.S. viewers from the summer Olympics during its 17-day run in London starting July 27.
Blanket coverage of every event and medal ceremony on NBCOlympics.com accounts for more than 3,500 of those hours, but each of NBCU’s regular TV outlets will also be carrying substantial loads.
With Bob Costas hosting in primetime, broadcasting’s NBC will air 272.5 hours, more than it ever has before and nearly 50 hours more than it did from Beijing four years ago.
The nascent NBC Sports Network is another big contributor, with plans for 292.5 hours, most of it original production. MSNBC will telecast 155.5 hours in a variety of sports; CNBC, with a focus on boxing, will chip in 73 hours; Bravo will telecast 56 hours of tennis; and Telemundo will air 173 hours in Spanish.
In addition, NBCU is creating “specialty channels” for 770 hours of basketball and soccer and making available 242 hours of 3D coverage in partnership with Panasonic.
Charged with assembling the technical platform to produce, route and manage all that TV — and making sure it works — is Dave Mazza, SVP of engineering for NBC Olympics.
There is no doubt he is up to the task. He has overseen NBC’s Olympic International Broadcast Center since the 1996 games in Atlanta after NBCU began locking in U.S. rights to the Olympics that now extend through 2020.
Mazza interrupted his work in London this week to speak with TVNewsCheck Contributing Editor Arthur Greenwald about what’s new on the technical side this year and how things are shaping up.
An edited transcript:
I understand that you have created a portable, reusable infrastructure for covering the Olympics over many years. How can you do that when the production equipment itself gets updated so frequently?
It’s hard to believe but it’s been in use since the 2000 games, so the infrastructure is going on its seventh Summer and Winter Games now. It’s mostly the physical layer of racking and roadcase systems that hold all the gear. Most of the gear has been replaced over that same 12-year period, especially because we converted the systems to HD. Surprisingly, some gear actually has made the entire trip. For example, some of the 9-inch Sony monitors that we used in Sidney are still in use today. Of course, they’re displaying letterbox down-converted HD.
So when you say reusable infrastructure you really mean the underlying hardware that holds all the new stuff?
Yes. One system we call RIBS was adapted from military technology. It stands for Racks In A Box System and it’s a steel platform with 20 mounted racks, 10 on each side, which can carry an entire routing switcher or intercom system. One of them originally held an SD router until ’06 in Torino when we converted it to HD with a whole bunch of Miranda gear. We’ve carried that RIBS around ever since so that we don’t suffer the hookup and checkout time for every Games.
How much of this stuff does NBC own and how much do you lease for each new games?
All the high-end production equipment goes obsolete in a hurry — the production switchers, the cameras, the lenses, the EVSes, the Avids and so on. All the stuff that you wouldn’t want sitting around for two years we either lease that or buy it if we know that it’s headed into some other part of the network.
What jumps out at you as the newest technology you’re introducing this year?
You know, it’s interesting. We always say that we will always use tried-and-true products to do the Olympics as we can’t afford the risk of something new. Then, when I look at the list of new stuff, it’s staggeringly long. We can’t pull off everything we’re trying to do with the tried and true. It’s just the nature of the beast.
What are your primary shooting and editing systems for the 2012 games?
We’re shooting with all Sony multiformat cameras. In the studios we’ve got 29 HDC2400s and in the field, we have 30 PDWF800s, which is the latest high-end XD Cam optical camcorder. We’re using all Canon lenses. In the studio that includes Digisuper 86×9.3, 27×6.5 and 22×7.3, and for ENG the 22×7.6, and 14×4.3mm wide angle.
Editing-wise we have about 45 Avid seats, a combination of Media Composers and Symphonies that all goes on [Avid] ISIS storage and we’re using a new device from Sony called an XD Cam Station which combines an optical drive and a hard drive inside the same box. About 50 channels of feeds are input in London through those XD Cam Stations in London — and what we call the “Highlights Factor” — and are immediately transferred to a 280 Terrabyte Omneon media grid in London, which is immediately replicated on another media grid in New York in both high-res and low-res proxies.
You’ll be delivering more than 5,500 hours of coverage over your various outlets. That’s something like 230 days of content. How do you log it, edit it and just plain keep track of it?
We’ll have up to 35 venues going on at the same time. Within two to three minutes, our shot selectors in New York are screening the proxy video and building edit lists. The high-res video arrives not far behind. Those events will either be finished on an Avid or pushed to the Web or mobile video at lower res.
We’ve got 10 gigabits of bandwidth coming to the U.S., about nine times what we had just 10 years ago in Sidney. That’s a staggering number. And with all those feeds just comes a lot of complexities you just can’t avoid. So just getting the right thing on 91 circuits is a bit of a daunting task.
How much of all that coverage originates with NBC and how much is pool coverage from the Olympic Broadcast Services?
OBS is doing the lion’s share of the core coverage. Their charge is to provide the “host feed” — unbiased international coverage of every venue. In order to pull off that 5,500-hour number, most of that is host feed. We supplement as much of it as possible, but our assets are helping to tell the American story of the U.S. athletes. So they may give us a feed at rowing where we might have one camera but they have 30.
The host feed is critical for events not scheduled for our bigger broadcast shows, such as table tennis or track cycling. All of the host feeds are streamed from London to YouTube, which is encoding all of our dayparts for what I call our streaming factory — our Web-based content.
Do you have special feeds or facilities for local affiliates who may be sending reporters over there?
Yes. Our normal Charlotte-based NewsChannel staff is here en masse. They have special camera positions for local cut-ins, editing rooms and access to our feeds to get the video home. We also have a sizeable group producing the Ozone show, which includes daily segments stations can use to create their own highlights show hosted by local anchors and featuring regional athletes.
And presumably there will be special facilities for NBC News and Today?
Again, that’s our news group that they’re right here next to us. They just arrived two days ago and we’re helping them to set up their stuff in their space at the IBC (International Broadcast Center.) Our guys have been here for two months already. So it’s definitely a collaborative effort between the news group and the sports group.
This is the first year that NBC will be carrying parts of the Olympics in 3D. Are you following the same game plan that you used for rolling out your initial HD coverage?
It’s similar but a little less. Our first HD coverage was in ’02 in Salt Lake City and we just used the HD host feed coverage with some of our own announcers. We did a bit more by the Athens games in ’04. But 3D is not quite as easy. SD and HD coverage can be from the same camera positions, 3D cameras need different placement with different replays and at a different pace for cutting between them. So this time we’re basically taking a produced 3D feed from OBS, which is dramatically simplifying our lives. We hope it’s enough to satisfy the viewers who own the 3D sets and are stoked about seeing the games in 3D.
How has the ownership change to Comcast affected your resources and priorities?
Well, the first thing they did, which was tremendous, was re-up the Olympic contract back in June when we won the bid for the next four games. Before that, London would have been our last games and all of this reusable stuff would have come to a halt. Then with the renewal came a huge influx of cash plus a growth in the number of outlets, distribution channels, including VOD and live streams. All of this is enabled by the assets Comcast brings to the table.
With so many complex systems and tasks to supervise, tell us a little about your management style.
I have to stay in sync with what the production guys are trying to do and then update the technical team on site to act on that info. I try to keep those guys pointed in the right direction, but they all know very well what they’re doing.
We have a very competent team, some of whom have been together all the way to Barcelona in 1992 or even Seoul in 1988. Of course we really put together the team once we got that first five-game package. We also have the luxury of about 1,500 freelancers, of whom 80% or more are veterans. That makes a tremendous difference when implementing a complex plan.
What’s the most challenging part of your job? Is it managing the people or organizing the equipment and systems?
Normally it’s just the challenge of getting the right people and gear into the right spot and getting a highly complex system working in a very short amount of time. We all expected that would be easier in in England than in countries that don’t speak English. But the stringent security and other regulations have made it harder to get our setup done. If you asked anybody walking around the IBC right now they’d tell you the same.
How do you prepare for unexpected developments that might interrupt your intricate plans, such as major breaking news or a technical failure?
Just today I was working on writing a backup plan for what we would do if there was a major issue at the IBC. We have different scenarios for which venue would we go to depending on what was happening. If it’s a power failure or an evacuation or whatever, where we would go on the air and in what order.
In Vancouver [when an athlete died during a luge run], Dick Ebersole threw out the format for the entire night and Brian Williams and all our reporters immediately kicked into gear to tell the story. But there was already a huge collaboration between the sports guys and news guys who had been working together in the IBC where they kept on collaborating. That’s when all those “what if” conversations pay off.
What’s the most satisfying part of what you do?
When it’s over and successfully completed. Yeah, there are lots of moving parts and a lot of stress, but when you get to the Opening Ceremonies and most everything is working flawlessly, it’s incredibly gratifying. Even though you’re exhausted, getting there successfully is what gives you the adrenaline to somehow get through the next 17 days.