NBC Olympic Execs Discuss Beijing HD Plans

By Ken Kerschbaumer

Executives from NBC Sports took center stage at this week’s HD World and AES conferences, discussing upcoming plans for the first completely HD Olympics. “It isn’t quite a debutante ball for HD but it’s a chance for HD to get out of the niche corner,” says David Neal, NBC Sports executive producer and NBC Olympics executive vice president.

With 302 events in 35 sports taking place at 37 venues the challenge for NBC and International Olympic Committee will be daunting. NBC this year will air more than 1,000 hours more of coverage than all previous Olympics combined.

That’s a daunting number of hours but NBC Olympics will be ready. Beijing Olympic Broadcasting (BOB) will have more than 60 mobile units will be on hand with 60% of those trucked in from Europe and the remainder from China.

“There will be over 1,000 cameras, all in HD, including RF,” says Neal. “And the Olympic host broadcaster has omitted cameras that would typically be in the mix because they could not be in HD. The camera in the bullseye at archery events is a perfect example.”

Making things easier for NBC with be Manolo Romero, general manager of BOB and his team. “We know they’ll have 12 cameras at weightlifting so we can focus our resources on the sports that are the most important to the American audience,” says Neal. “We can put 15 cameras at the swimming events.”

With the Chinese spending more than $40 billion on the Olympics and pre-cabling every venue for fiber optics Neal says the network is primed to deliver broadband and mobile video from a single, high-end HD source. A center cut of the HD action will be delivered to SD viewers.

Super Surround Audio

Chip Adams, NBC Olympic VP, venue engineering, says the high-def images will be complemented with full discrete 5.1 Surround Sound. That doesn’t necessarily mean that ever event will be heard in discrete (the challenge with recording to tape and playback could negatively impact discrete deliver) but NBC will preserve the 5.1 Surround Sound field.

Bob Dixon, NBC Olympics director, sound design and communications, says much of the coverage, however, will be sent straight back to New York and then out to affiliates as discrete 5.1 signals.

“For my money there is nothing like discrete,” he says. “If it’s miked well and you set the sound stage it is wonderful. The bottleneck is when things have to be recorded because there are not enough machines to record six channels audio. And frankly it’s hard to find editors who know how to handle 5.1.”

“It’s a huge challenge to manage Surround signals into a tape room [at the IBC] or at the edit room at the venue,” says Adams. “We’re experimenting with downmixing 5.1 to two channels so we can edit within four-channel edit rooms.” Stereo audio and effects will then be passed through upmixing.

Previously only four channels of audio came in from each venue but in 2008 16 channels of audio will be coming in. Even fitting them all onto a mixing board will require some in-depth planning. “Even the largest audio boards don’t have the capability for multiple 5.1 playback channels,” adds Adams.

For 17 days next August the Beijing Olympics will be the event of the moment. And for HD that means more attention to a format that, less than six months later, will become a major part of the American TV viewers world as TV stations turn off their analog service. Neal is hopeful that HD will find it’s rightful place among viewers.

“HD creates traction with viewers and stops the channel surfer for those crucial five seconds that [make them stay],” he says.

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