Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame 2018: David Mazza, NBC’s Gold-Medal Tech Visionary
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There aren’t many people who can turn a childhood passion for taking things apart in elementary school into a Hall of Fame career, but David Mazza has done just that.
“I was very lucky to start developing a passion for this in elementary school, which then led to the A/V club, building a TV studio in junior high, and then an internship at WPSX-TV in Penn State and working on Penn State Football while in high school,” says Mazza.
Growing up in Pennsylvania afforded him the opportunity to be part of the early years of companies like TCS, NEP, and TPC (which became Unitel) and even to work alongside one of his stalwarts at NBC Olympics, Terry Adams.
“He was the EIC on the truck I was working on in college,” Mazza notes, “Now Terry is in charge of all our IBC engineering.”
Getting from being passionate about the industry to working in it required a lucky break, and that came in 1977, a year he spent in Colorado washing dishes at a ski lodge and playing the role of ski bum.
“I had hitch-hiked to Colorado and got a job, so I could ski every day,” he recalls. “At the end of the season, I saw an ad in Ski Racing magazine that read, ‘Wanted: good skier with an electronic background.’ I got the job with Omega Timing, and they told me to show up in Aspen on Dec. 15. They taught me how to run timing systems along with being race tournament director.”
He traveled with the World Pro Skiing tour for two seasons and started dabbling in being a freelancer in TV production in 1979. From 1980 to ’86, he was a full-time freelancer and worked as TD for HBO on boxing and Wimbledon, CBS Sports (one of the first freelance TDs), NBC golf in Hawaii, and even the first two MTV Music Awards, in 1984 and 1985.
His First Olympics
It was at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles that Mazza made the Olympic leap, serving as technical director for the rowing and canoeing venue. It wasn’t an easy job: the production team produced both the ABC feed and the host feed from the same mobile unit, which meant that Mazza had to cut two separate shows at the same time (in a world where automated routing processes were nonexistent).
He also was involved in an early iteration of the virtual-line technology for rowing split times. It was a physically intensive process, part of a live-production dance that Mazza found exhilarating. And, by the end of 1985, he was considered one of the top freelance sports TDs in the business.
“It was fun,” he says, “because the live nature of the shows multiplies the complexity — especially with production switchers, because, at the time, they had very little memory. You had to do a lot of very fast button-pushing. I still miss the adrenaline of sitting behind the switcher and getting only one shot to do it correctly.”
Two years later, however, it was time to find something more stable: he and his wife, Taylor, had recently married. In 1987, he moved to Boston, where he was hired by his now good friend Matthew Adams to help build a technical TV facility for the Christian Science Monitor Channel. While in Boston, Mazza continued to fulfill his live-production passion by working on boxing and Wimbledon for HBO as well as the Seoul, Albertville, and Barcelona Olympics for CBS and NBC. He and Taylor also had two children: a daughter, Niven, in 1989 and a son, Lundun, in 1991.
In 1992, he went to work for Sony on the design and construction of DirecTV’s playout plant in Castle Rock, CO. He also consulted for various other clients on system design.
Working on the Christian Science Monitor Channel gave him a chance to cut his teeth on system design. The experience served him well when he made the move to NBC Olympics and was where he met Chip Adams, who now oversees all of NBC’s venue engineering.
In 1994, Mazza joined NBC as director of engineering. Two years later, he moved into the same role at NBC Olympics, reporting to Charles Jablonski, and, in 1997, opened the NBC Olympics Engineering office. Since then, he has worked on 11 Olympic Games for NBC (15 overall). Each Olympics is unique, he notes, with each host city posing new cultural differences, new languages, and a new approach to completing a task.
He adds that it is testament to the NBC culture that so many production and technical staffers return for every Olympics.
“It takes a few days for things to settle down after the Opening Ceremony, but it is gratifying to see the number of things that have to go right to get to that point,” Mazza says. “We have to manage the balance between the new things we attempt in each Games vs. the overwhelming hours of tonnage and at-home complexities along with the simultaneous nature of having seven or eight control rooms across two continents, 16 or 18 venue production units, and 25 off-tube announce booths active all at once.”
Former NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol says that, in the 10 Olympics they worked on together, Mazza handled all those challenges and then some.
“In my two decades-plus of running NBC Sports, there was no single person as valuable to me and to our entire unit as Dave,” says Ebersol. “In the 10 Olympics I did with Dave, I cannot think of a single incident when he was not our most valuable performer.”
Ebersol adds that Mazza’s personal skills were unsurpassed by anyone he has ever worked with.
“Dave set a tone of we can and we will accomplish our goals, and, in that venture, he was usually accompanied by [former NBC Olympics Director] Bucky Gunts, [former NBC Sports producer] David Neal, and [current President, NBC Olympics Production and Programming,] Jim Bell,” says Ebersol. “We were always ready before the hundreds and sometimes thousands of NBC people arrived at an Olympics venue.”
Former NBC Olympic host and fellow Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame inductee Bob Costas spent plenty of time over the years making good use of the efforts of Mazza and the technical team.
“I can’t think of a significant technical problem that ever befell us in the dozen Olympics that I was a part of,” says Costas. “And without Dave figuring out what for most of us would be an unsolvable Rubik’s Cube, the Olympics would never get on the air.”
Since 2000, every Olympics has seen a technical advance that makes a difference to millions of viewers across the U.S. or to the team producing the coverage. At the 2000 Sydney Games, it was the move to SDI and embedded audio and the transportable infrastructure. For the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, the advance was large-scale shared storage and an HD experimental feed. The 2004 Athens Games saw a massive increase in cable coverage hours, and, for the 2006 Torino Games, the main NBC feed made the move to HD.
At each Olympics, the NBC team at the event has become more closely tied to a team in the States, and the infrastructure has been marked by increased complexity and capability. Also increasing have been the operational planning and orchestration needs. Since 1996, the efforts have been led by Errol Foremaster, VP, NEP Supershooters and NBC Olympics, NEP.
Mazza and his team were also responsible for designing and building the NBC Sports Broadcast Center in Stamford during 2011 and 2012.
A Close-Knit, Passionate, Creative Team
“I believe in a flat organizational structure,” he explains. “You are less likely to get disconnects or ideas that get lost in translation between layers of management. Because of this, we operate with a very small systems-design team working on the core designs of each Olympics. It is a very close-knit team that have come to know each other’s every move.”
Mazza has some mantras that have defined his philosophy. First, try to find people who are passionate about the challenges and the job. Then work to keep them challenged and happy, without stifling their creativity.
“But you also want to ask probing questions to make sure everybody is moving in lockstep and going to hit the target on time,” he adds.
He also sees the need to push things and yet manage the risks by always having several alternatives. He is accepting of failure, because, “if you don’t ever fail, you probably are not trying hard enough.
“Failures are usually huge learning opportunities,” he continues. “But we try hard not to fail during primetime.”
When asked how the job continues to energize and challenge him, he says, “I love how we have to take a lot of very complex technologies, some newer and less mature than we’d like, and get them to work halfway around the world, often in difficult conditions, with thousands of staff freelancers who have had less than a week to understand them all. Although it tends to be a little crazy the first few days, very little of the confusion is visible on the air; it typically settles down very quickly. The whole process is incredibly gratifying!”
When asked what he is most proud of, Mazza cites the strength of his marriage, the love of a large extended family, and having raised two amazing kids, who also are fortunate enough to be working at challenging jobs they are passionate about.
He readily admits, though, that it is his wife who should get the credit for the kids. “And for that, I feel incredibly blessed.”