Live From London: NBC’s Mazza Sees 2012 Games as Birth of a New Era
Judging by the massive live-streaming viewership totals on NBCOlympics.com thus far, it is safe to say that the American public has warmly embraced NBC’s decision to make every minute of the London Games available live in some fashion. And while the launch of this second-screen effort is a godsend for the hardcore Olympics fan, it also created a monumentally tall task for NBC Olympics SVP of Engineering Dave Mazza: delivering nearly 100 HD feeds back to the U.S. from an ocean away.
“The sheer number of circuits leaving here — either IP or ASI-based video — is astounding and just getting those all home reliably is a huge challenge,” says the NBC Olympics stalwart. “But I think this is really the beginning of an era where all the content will be out there in many different ways. There was this fear for so many years that all this new media was going to cannibalize [primetime] viewers, but — initially, at least — it looks like it has only built viewership.”
More Feeds Than Ever Before
In all, NBC is transmitting 92 video feeds out of the IBC, 60 of which are IP-based streams delivered to NBCOlympics.com. A total of 5,535 hours of the coverage (including 3,500 live hours) is being delivered to NBC, NBC Sports Network, MSNBC, CNBC, Bravo, Telemundo, two specialty channels, and NBCOlympics.com and in 3D.
“There’s nothing that we aren’t sending out of here — sometimes several times to account for the different compression [formats] that need to be sent out,” says Mazza. “Even with the amount of content here, nothing seemed insurmountable during the planning. It seemed like, every day, someone would add another piece or feed to the puzzle. That adds up. It didn’t bite us, but it made of some very complex setups.”
MAM Finally Comes of Age
NBC’s Highlights Factory operation at Rockefeller Center in New York has been a core element of the network’s workflow since the Beijing Olympics. However, the IBC-30 Rock workflow has truly hit its stride at the London Games, thanks to the maturation of the Avid Interplay Media Asset Manager (MAM) system shared by the two operations.
In Beijing, MAM was used solely to ingest and manage content for the Web side of the operation because it was “brand new and kind of risky and we could afford that type of risk on the Web side,” according to Mazza. But the broadcast side continued to create removable XDCAM recordings for all content, as it had at every Olympics since migrating from a tape-based workflow.
In London, however, NBC ceased XDCAM recordings after the first two days of the Games when it became apparent that MAM was finally ready for primetime. The key, says Mazza, was the ability to finally marry hi-res files with lo-res proxies to allow users on both sides of the pond to view and edit the wealth of content housed in the MAM system.
“After 10 years in the making, we finally have the Highlights Factory and MAM working the way we want,” says Mazza. “Once the genie was out of the bottle with the MAM and the file-based workflows across different continents and different clients, it opened up a lot of possibilities.”
The MAM can also be used by NBC News, which deploys a massive operation at the IBC in London in addition to its 30 Rock operations.
“Anyone that wants a shot [from the host feed] has to get it on MAM now,” he says. “It was amazing how fast that was adopted. Now [editors] can just take the 10 seconds they want rather than the hour-long clip, and they don’t have to constantly be worried about how they’re going to get a moment recorded. And it also stops five or six people from having to record the same thing.”
In addition, staffers at the IBC can access NBC’s massive Stamford, CT-based archive via proxies, allowing NBC to avoid having to ship an arsenal of tapes out to London.
“That is not critical to the on-air workflows, but it is pre-Games, when everyone needed archival material,” says Mazza. “Now you can view a proxy that is resident in Stamford ¾ which we couldn’t do four years ago in Beijing. You tell the Stamford robot that you want that clip, and it copies it to New York to the MediaGrid, and [the clip] lands over here.”
On Jan. 1, NBC Sports will officially open its brand-new, state-of-the-art facility in Stamford. Nearly all NBC Sports operations will be run out of it (although Sunday Night Football will continue to run out of 30 Rock), including the Highlights Factory.
“Highlights Factory is very complicated to get running for every Olympics, and it really should probably not be even attempted for a 17-day show, especially when you only get your video and data circuits up 10 days before the Games,” says Mazza. “Most people would say you’re crazy to even try it. But now we will be able to move that to [Stamford], and, by the time Sochi comes around, it will be running like a top because we will be using it every day. That will be hugely beneficial for us.”
The facility — which will house six full studios, six control rooms, and 50 edit rooms — will serve as the home base for at-home operations during the Sochi 2014 Winter Games, which will light the flame just 13 months after the Stamford facility opens.
“I don’t think it is necessarily going to change how much we do at home; it’s just going to make it easier,” says Mazza. “It was purpose-built to handle all of the at-home [Olympics operations] more easily than 30 Rock. For example, instead of having 30-some-odd converters here [in London to perform standards conversion to 60 Hz], we will just send it home in 50 Hz, manipulate it in 50 Hz, and convert the end product.”
Veterans Prove To Be Key
While the Highlights Factory has evolved into an integral part of NBC’s Olympic workflow, the core of the operation remains the 1,200 crew members — about 80% of which are veterans of multiple Games — on hand in London.
“We could not do the level of complex things we do if we had 1,200 new people every time,” says Mazza. “We just could not execute all this without a veteran team. Much of our work here is out of the ordinary, stuff that doesn’t happen every Friday night in the parking lot at a hockey game. It takes a veteran to dig in and understand that this is different from the last week when they were doing golf.”
The End of an Era: Ebersol and Romero
While the London Games have marked the launch of the second-screen Olympic age, they also represent the end of an era. Although NBC Olympics visionary Dick Ebersol is on hand at the IBC as a consultant, he is no longer running the show for NBC, as he did for every Olympics since Barcelona in 1992.
“I think he is both a valuable security blanket and huge help to the production guys,” says Mazza. “He absolutely loves the Olympics. It all happened so fast for all of us [when he left NBC in May 2011]. He was there, and then suddenly, a week before the bidding, he wasn’t. But everyone was just so happy to see him here.”
Ebersol is not the only Olympics legend to be making a transition, however. Long-time OBS CEO Manolo Romero will shift to a new role as vice chairman of OBS after London.
“That is going to be a huge loss because he was the visionary behind the entire OBS and how it was built up over the years and a lot of the production and engineering techniques from over the years,” says Mazza. “I don’t think Manolo will ever truly retire; he just loves the Games too much.”
Looking Ahead While Enjoying the Moment
Judging by the Nielsen ratings, the 2012 Olympic Games have been an overwhelming success for NBC.
Nonetheless, the same challenges that have faced the network in London ¾ most notably, the conundrum regarding live vs. tape-delayed coverage as a result of the London-U.S. time differential — will rear their ugly heads once again in Sochi, Russia, less than 18 months from now. And, while the time difference will be even larger and the infrastructure challenges greater in a Russian resort city, Mazza believes NBC’s engineering team is more than up to the challenge.
“I think Sochi and Rio [de Janeiro in 2016] will only build on what has happened here,” he says. “People are complaining on the blogosphere and Twitter about the live TV, but people are voting with their remotes. I think that will only continue.”