Op-Ed: SGL FlashNet Provides NBC With Archive Gold at Rio Olympics 2016

In August, a record number of us across the world were glued to an amazing two weeks of Olympic sports action. Then the cameras stopped rolling, our sporting heroes were welcomed home, and the NBC Olympics team checked out of the International Broadcast Center (IBC). Rio 2016 was over, and thousands of hours of world-class sporting action stored on hundreds of LTO tapes were packed up and taken to NBC Sports’ Stamford, CT, HQ. Like checking out of a hotel after a two-week vacation, NBC Sports didn’t want to leave any of that precious material behind.

Chris Luther, Director of Professional Services (Americas), SGL

Chris Luther, Director of Professional Services (Americas), SGL

Rio 2016 really was a carnival Olympics, smashing records not only on the track, in the velodrome, and in the pool but also behind the scenes. A staggering 350,000 hours of coverage was shown; London 2012 saw less than 200,000 hours. In a short four years, how has this coverage increased so significantly? First, two new sports — golf and rugby sevens — were seen for the first time at the Games; second, there was a vast increase in 4K capture; and, third, this year’s event saw more digital coverage than ever, nearly double the amount  of TV coverage and 2.5 times more than London 2012 (218,000 hours versus 81,500 hours). NBC exceeded a staggering 2.5 billion live-streaming minutes, more than 1 billion more than all previous Olympic Games combined.

Creating the world’s biggest live television event comes with a lot of pressure, and, as a long-time host broadcaster, NBC Olympics has to ensure that the technology it has in place from acquisition through to delivery is first-rate. One of the key elements of the workflow is the SGL FlashNet archive, which NBC Olympics started using for the 2004 Athens Games. Much of that content is still regularly accessed, having been automatically migrated across generations of physical storage by the sophisticated content-management software SGL FlashNet.

On a day-to-day basis, parent broadcaster NBC has a large SGL archive implementation at its Stamford HQ, which it uses to store material for its whole operation, fully implemented with Avid’s Interplay production-asset–management (PAM) and media-asset–management (MAM) systems. When the Olympics come around every two years, that FlashNet system is extended out to the host country. This means that the editing teams around the world can easily reach back into the archives in Connecticut and pull that all-important historical media. For content produced in Rio, NBC Olympics sent a small SGL archive that took all the feeds for the hundreds and thousands of hours of recordings that NBC made and stored them on two 50-slot, four-LTO-drive libraries. The SGL FlashNet system is capable of storing nearly 4,000 hours of XDcam HD material every day even in this compact hardware configuration.

At the planning stage, NBC Olympics decides which material will be archived or deleted at a later date, placing flags within the metadata. During the event, as the SGL FlashNet system processes through each day’s media, it looks for material that’s flagged to be archived and writes those terabytes of data onto the LTO tape.

Jim Miles, director, digital workflow systems, NBC Olympics, says, “The SGL archive was pushed really hard throughout this event, processing thousands of jobs per day — up to 600 jobs per hour — which is really telling of what the system can do. As well as this powerful processing capability, it also provided us with access to historical Games so we could pull content from London, Beijing, Sydney, and Atlanta to integrate into the stories that we were telling even before the Games had started. Once the Games began, we logged every aspect of the competition so we can tell that story again next time. This workflow isn’t just for the Olympics but all our other entities, such as NHL and NFL; we go back to the archives constantly.”

Enabling feature producers to easily pull historical material from the archive is a key part of the NBC Sports production workflow. Traditionally, pulling material from the U.S. to the host nation in this way was an expensive and time-consuming process involving a transmission operator, feed lines, encoders, satellites, and a number of other components.

“In years gone by, it would take 10 or 15 people to make that happen,” Miles says. “Now, using the MAM and the SGL archive, producers can find the shot, pick off the chunk they want, quickly send this to the venue using file acceleration, restore that material and all the other components from FlashNet, and, within a few minutes, have that shot within their editing system.”

Partial file restore, which is supported by Avid Interplay PAM and MAM workflows, is a key element of the NBC Olympics workflow. Many of the recordings are much too long to be pulled back into the edit when often all that’s required is the 30-second shot of the goal or the climax of the race. Built-in intelligence within FlashNet’s data-handling components read and log the metadata held in the MXF or QuickTime wrapper as it’s written to the archive. This information is passed to the FlashNet database for later use when only a small portion of the original material is required.

Every two-year cycle brings about new technology features, and Rio was no different. In Sochi, NBC Olympics had a separate archive from the production system. In Rio, the search capability, the systems, and the database were all fully integrated, so the operators could log into a single tool and search for assets from that day or 10 years ago, within the same result set and the same interface.

“What we’ve been doing the last 18 days has never been done before,” Miles explained after Rio 2016. “It’s the biggest television event that we’ve produced, it’s the most content we’ve ever produced, and it’s the most churn on the archive that we’ve ever done. Rio stands in a category of its own.”

Now that the torch has been extinguished in Rio, the precious 2016 Olympics content will be safely stored in both the Stamford and NBC Olympics’ associated DR facilities, ready to be used again in Tokyo 2018 and by future generations.

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