Beijing 2022 Preview: NBC Olympics Will Deploy ‘the Most Production Technology Ever at a Winter Olympics’
Remote operation will be a larger factor than for previous Games
NBC Olympics has been relying on its Sports Production Operations Center (SPOC) in Stamford, CT, more and more with each Games it covers, but the Peacock will take that to a new level for the Beijing 2022 Olympics next month. More than 1,000 crew members and nearly all the on-air talent will be located in Stamford this year vs. roughly 250 for the Beijing 2008 Games. Even though the production team will be largely remote and facing unprecedented challenges, NBC plans to produce the most high-tech Winter Olympics presentation in history.
“We are deploying the most production technology ever at a Winter Olympics,” said Molly Solomon, president/executive producer, NBC Olympics Production, during a media presentation. “But I have to say, something significant has changed virtually every day for the last three months, forcing us to adjust our plan numerous times. I expect that to continue, and so will the challenge of covering these Olympics.”
Plenty of New Tech in Beijing
As the top draw for Winter Olympics viewers, figure skating will get an extra boost this year with a super-slo-mo camera positioned in each of the rink’s four corners, bringing the total complement to 22 cameras.
“These skaters — on both the men’s and women’s side — are continuing to elevate the sport with quadruple jumps,” said Solomon. “We wanted to make sure that we’re better explaining these amazing feats. We’ve added four super-slo-mo cameras, and that’s going to help the viewer better understand the rotations on these jumps that determine their scores.”
She added that NBC plans to deploy StroMotion athlete-tracking technology to create replay packages on figure skating and has challenged analysts Tara Lipinsky and Johnny Weir to “become ‘titans of the tele’ and channel their inner John Madden” on replays.
At the snowboarding course, NBC will have raw motion-data tracking, to graphically display jump height in the halfpipe. In addition, the Alpine skiing course will allow the broadcaster access to motion sensors to provide live speed data on skiers as well as on the wind on the course.
Stamford’s Role To Be Bigger Than Ever
After more than 1,500 people were located in Stamford during the Tokyo Games last summer, NBC Sports headquarters will once again play a massive role in the Beijing 2022 production ops. For its fifth Games, Stamford will serve as home to more than 1,000 crew members during the 19-day event.
“We’ve gotten really good at this type of [at-home] production,” said Solomon. “It’s almost like we have built-in expertise on how to mount large-scale remote productions. And the Beijing  model is going to be very similar to Tokyo in that the heartbeat of our Olympic operation will be in Stamford, CT, at NBC Sports headquarters. We will have more personnel there than in the host city.”
Although primetime host Mike Tirico will be in Beijing for the opening week of the Games (he will then head to Los Angeles to host both Olympics and Super Bowl LVI), NBC has confirmed that nearly all announcers and hosts will be calling the action from Stamford this year. Remote commentary is nothing new to NBC’s Olympics coverage, but its “Off-Tube Factory” operation will apparently play a bigger role than ever. In addition, over the past 18+ months, NBC has grown even more adept at calling games remotely, the pandemic having forced many commentary teams and studios shows to be located in Stamford instead of onsite.
“It’s absolutely the hub; Stanford is our home,” said NBC Sports Chairman Pete Bevacqua. “We’ll make sure to do everything to keep people safe and sound, but, with advances in technology, that connectivity between what we’re doing in Beijing and what we do here in Stamford in our home base, I know we won’t skip a beat. And again, we’ve been dealing with live sports during a pandemic for 18 months, including the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. So this team is tested. This team is ready.”
A ‘Closed Loop’ in Beijing
With just over a week until the Games begin, NBC’s production presence at the International Broadcast Center (IBC) in Beijing is up and running. Roughly 100 people were phased in during October and November to begin construction of the technical infrastructure at the IBC.
“That put us in a really great position when more of us came in early January,” said NBC Olympics President Gary Zenkel. “We have a sound technical infrastructure built inside the IBC. And, now that we’re able to move to the venues, our preparations at the venues are under way.”
This month, NBC’s onsite personnel (along with nearly all Olympics-stakeholder personnel) entered what the Chinese government is calling a “closed loop” in an effort to prevent the spread of the Omicron variant during the Games. Though limiting the onsite crew’s ability to leave the Olympic bubble, it is intended to allow personnel to move more easily between venues and the IBC.
“It is restrictive, but it does allow us, of course, to completely access the broadcast center [and] the venues in order to complete our preparation,” said Zenkel. “So all is quite good. I haven’t been to any venues yet on this trip, but those who have [been] say they are spectacular. I have no doubt that what the American audience witnesses when we turn on our cameras in a few weeks is going to be extraordinary.”
NBC Olympics Ready To Pivot as New Challenges Arise
Seemingly insurmountable challenges are nothing new to the NBC Olympics squad, which has become accustomed to overcoming new operational hurdles. Bevacqua put it this way: “You can’t be caught flat-footed; you have to understand that you’re going to have to call audibles along the way.”
Beijing 2022, however, presents a near “perfect storm” of obstacles. Not only will NBC be tasked with producing one of the world’s largest sports events during a global pandemic (as it did in Tokyo) and doing so under ultra-strict protocols enacted by the Chinese government, but the Peacock will be handling another one of sport’s biggest events at the same time: Super Bowl Sunday. Nonetheless, Solomon is confident that her team is up to the challenge.
“COVID’s changing conditions and China’s zero-tolerance policy [have] just added a layer of complexity,” she said. “We need to make sure that we can provide the same quality experience to the American viewer. That’s why we are split between the two cities, but, as we tell our team, we’re nimble, we’re flexible, and we’re ready to pivot.”