Tokyo Olympics

Live From Tokyo Olympics: Dave Mazza Reflections on a Unique Games Experience

There are two days to go in the Tokyo Games, and, at this point, many of the thousands of broadcast professionals have started to head home. Others are staying for the Paralympic Games. But all of them, like Dave Mazza, SVP/CTO, NBC Sports Group and NBC Olympics, are reflecting on an Olympics experience that, for more than a year, has been unlike any other before.

Dave Mazza (left) and Errol Foremaster in Studio A at the NBC Olympics IBC facility.

“We came in with a bit of trepidation because the extra year of planning saw a plethora of new, good ideas from production to enhance the coverage,” says Mazza. “And then we were also trying to make good on some very aggressive technical initiatives. It made the plan better, but, for every bit of better that it got, it was more daunting as to how we were actually going to pull it off when we were not even sure how many of our crew would make it into Tokyo. Now I am very pleased with how it has all gone, even though, early on, we had a few near misses, but that has made the accomplishments all the sweeter.”

Invariably, an Olympics effort is always compared to previous ones, whether it be ratings comparisons, the scale of the show, or the production achievements. Mazza says the Tokyo efforts were about three times more complicated than the 2016 Rio Games. First, a doubling of the complexity around new technologies and workflows like IP, HDR, 1080p, and immersive audio. Another step up was due to the complications from attempting such a large-scale production during a global pandemic.

“What we did in Rio was no small undertaking,” he says. “But everybody here has done an incredible job. The attention to detail and, on top of that, the passion that it took for getting it right and getting it done in the middle of the pandemic; the pandemic adds worries about yourself, your family, the rules, the tests. It was a Herculean effort to get it all done.”

From a production-element standpoint, Mazza notes things like the Friends & Family effort, which allowed athletes to see and talk to family and friends back home immediately after their event. Born out of the pandemic, it was a complicated effort, often taking a tremendous number of worker-hours to simply get a 10-second shot on-air.

“It allows for a super dramatic moment,” he says. “I remember when one of our cynical ADs yelled from the other side of the room that even he was crying because everybody on screen was in tears. When a special moment like that comes out, it makes it all worth the effort and extra planning.”

Another extra effort that paid off was apparent during the Opening Ceremony. The show was already expected to have a very different feel from the typical Ceremony, not only because fans were absent but also because the teams and parade of nations were being handled in a different way. NBC sought to put a camera on the bus with the U.S. team on its way to the Ceremony.

“We weren’t really sure we’d ever get permission,” says Mazza, “but we built out all the plans in the hopes that we would be able to do it. A surprising number of things that we were looking to do came true for us.

“I think that somebody was really looking out for us,” he continues. “Two of the organizations that were looking out for us are OBS and TOCOG 2020. They have a lot of very hardworking people whose efforts made everything [we] needed possible.”

Tech Reflections

From a technology standpoint, the big lift this year was to create a wide variety of video formats floating through the ecosystem in Tokyo, the U.S., and Sky in the UK. OBS provided content in 4K HDR and 1080p SDR, which NBC Olympics then intermixed with its own 1080p HDR as the primary production format. But there was also 1080i SDR, which NBC used for all the cable and digital feeds to its Stamford, CT, facility. On top of that, NBC Olympics in Tokyo handed off an HDR signal in the HLG standard to the NBC playout facility in Englewood Cliffs, NJ, where it was flipped to PQ and emitted via HEVC compression.

From a technology standpoint, the big lift this year was to create a wide variety of video formats floating through the ecosystem in Tokyo, the U.S., and Sky in the UK. OBS provided content in 4K HDR and 1080p SDR, which NBC Olympics then intermixed with its own 1080p HDR as the primary production format. But there was also 1080i SDR, which NBC used for all the cable and digital feeds to its Stamford, CT, facility. On top of that, NBC Olympics in Tokyo handed off an HDR signal in the HLG standard to the NBC playout facility in Englewood Cliffs, NJ, where it was flipped to PQ and emitted via HEVC compression.

“We did our best to get to one format and stay there,” says Mazza, “and that worked really well. We pretty much normalized anything we had to 1080p HDR, and, once we got there, it was easy.”

He notes that the work around HDR that NBC Sports undertook for Notre Dame Football for three seasons paid off big time. The team was able to develop its own set of LUTs (look-up tables) to allow color space from one format to be properly mapped to another.

“We probably experimented with 10 or 15 versions of LUTs during the Notre Dame games,” he explains. “It ultimately got us to a really good point. It’s one of the reasons we haven’t had trouble with HDR.”

The improvement offered by HDR, 1080p, and immersive audio, he notes, is dramatic and noticeable, especially with proper compression rates and formats. “HEVC compression looks really good at the bitrate we’re using. But we can’t squash it any further, as has happened to HD, because then it won’t look very good. So we’re very pleased with how it looks now.”

The Olympic Evolution

With 16 Olympics under his belt, Mazza has seen a lot of advances. He notes a chart on the wall in the IBC from the Sydney Summer Games in 2000: “The chart shows four SD signals coming from Sydney, and we thought that was complicated. Now we have 221 HD feeds, 60 of which are HDR, and 101 feeds coming back. It’s mind-bending. If I think about it too much, it’s a bit terrifying [to be] responsible for making sure it works.”

The key, he says, is a team that has been together for several games, a team that is hundreds strong and has been part of a plan that has grown a little bit each time.

“There is a lot of legacy to our workflows,” he points out. “The new piece we’re teaching is HDR or immersive audio. We didn’t reinvent everything.”

That said, Mazza acknowledges that almost everything under the hood has changed: the facility is fully IP. But the goal is to ensure that the IP changes under the hood do not impact the way the production or engineering team operates.

“The guys in transmission, once they’ve stopping thinking about the IP router, are ultimately doing the same thing,” he says. “It’s getting lip-sync right, getting the levels right, and getting the right picture to the right commentators. It’s the same goals with entirely different hardware and, in some cases, a different process.”

He credits not only the internal team but the freelancers with adjusting to a new world of IP, 1080p, and HDR.

“The freelancers, especially, might have been here only seven to 10 days ahead of the Games, and their heads were spinning,” he says. “But the goal with the operators was to not overwhelm them with complexity. The IP router runs on the same control panels it was on before, and they can toggle back and forth just as fast as before.”

The pandemic did more than just make people concerned about health issues. It also caused operations to shift out of Tokyo, most notably production facilities for beach volleyball, basketball, indoor volleyball, diving, and golf.

And it’s not just COVID. The weather has resulted in events’ changing times, venues, and more. And all those details need to be conveyed to multiple teams in multiple places. NEP VP, Special Projects, Errol Foremaster is key to keeping the various control rooms on different continents in sync. Printed timetables let him quickly see local times, which was essential to keeping everyone in sync and executing the plan.

“We shifted venue control rooms’ homes,” says Mazza. “That was mostly COVID-based. And those are all pretty big efforts: beach volleyball has 16 HDR feeds, golf has 16 HDR feeds, and basketball has 12 SDR feeds. Errol is hyper-aware of the relationship between the competition, production, and truck schedules.”

Foremaster was at the center of such issues as personnel-spacing issues in the IBC and how control rooms would be cleaned between shifts and athlete-interview setup.

“All of those things kept changing,” he says. “Everyone was constantly making changes and needing to know what those implementations were. But, when we got here, we realized we were in such a bubble to ourselves that it wasn’t as bad as we thought it would be.”

Contingency plans had been drawn up in case production crews and executives needed to isolate and work remotely from a hotel room.

“We had plans for turning control rooms here in the IBC into a place for a venue production team to work in case they couldn’t work out of a truck,” Foremaster says. “We also have a few extra crew members and rooms in the Hilton set up with multiviewers in case someone was there under quarantine. We put a lot of those things in place.”

Mazza says that the team also had to build out a worst-case plan in case very few people came to Tokyo. “We spun up a lot of scenarios during the year. In the end, we wanted to move as many people home as we could without impacting the primetime product, and it has worked out well. But we had to figure out how to distribute 500 people in Stamford.”

The Sky UK team was also involved, handling indoor volleyball, and that introduced some complexity when the producer and director were not able to travel from the U.S. to the UK. The announcers were at the venue in Tokyo, all the feeds went to Sky, and the producer and director were in a conference room in Stamford, talking to the team in the UK as well as the camera operators in Tokyo.

“We could not be doing this [here in Tokyo] without the incredibly hard work of the giant team in Stamford; 30 Rock; CNBC; the NOC; the team in Dry Creek, CO; and Telemundo Center in Miami,” says Mazza. “Tim Canary, NBC Sports VP, engineering, and Tom Popple, NBC Universal VP, studio operations, have been key to keeping many of the U.S. groups running smoothly. And that is no small feat, with 10 control rooms and 28 announce booths running in just the Stamford plant alone.”

As for the team in Tokyo, Mazza notes Chip Adams, VP, venue engineering, who oversees venue operations, and Todd Donovan, NBC Olympics VP, engineering, who took over from the retired Terry Adams to oversee the IBC. But, says Mazza, Terry was willing to come out of retirement to help us out. “He has been that consistent connective tissue back to all the things we used to do, and he was very instrumental in the design of the IBC.

“Speaking of legacy,” Mazza continues, “I would be remiss if I did not credit our smartest and most kindhearted Senior Engineer Chris Jorgensen, who unfortunately we lost about 16 months ago. Chris could fix anything, he understood how absolutely everything works, and he was patient enough to explain to the mere mortals. We will forever miss him and his contributions.”

Mazza also cites Darryl Jefferson, NBC Olympics VP, broadcast operations and technology, and his team, who handled all the file-based workflow and all the editing. The new player on the team, Mike Drazin, director production engineering and technology, NBC Olympics, worked with Director, Advanced Content Production Technology, Chris Seeger, in championing the HDR effort.

To keep the Tokyo team connected, says Mazza, Chris Connolly, VP, transmission operations and engineering, NBC Sports Group, and his team engineered the entire transmission architecture. The team in comms, headed by John Pastore, director, broadcast communication, NBC Sports Group,  kept the world’s largest trunked intercom working. And Karl Malone, director, sound design, NBC Sports and NBC Olympics, and his team worked tirelessly on every bit of sound collected and presented as the perfect immersive mix. The venue engineeing team of Levi Phillippe, Tom Perley, and Doug McGee kept all of our remote controlled venue operations running smoothly, which were “caught” at home by Dominic Torchia and the four mobile units in Stamford.

Meanwhile, Power Technical Manager Charlie Jablonski kept all of the power on, and Director of Construction John Arvelo oversaw construction of the IBC and the HVAC.

[Dirctor, Broadcast Operations,] Ian Kuchta runs our entire BOC operation,” notes Mazza, “which is a lot like the lead air-traffic controller at the Atlanta Airport, controlling all the traffic on the plethora of transmission circuits. Of course, all of what we do on the tech/ops side ultimately boils down to trying to make the vision of our incredibly talented production teams come true, and none of them are more passionate and dedicated than Mike Sheehan, our coordinating director.”

The COVID challenge, Mazza notes, made the efforts of Marsha Bird, SVP, Olympic Operations; Ryan Soucy, VP, Olympic operations; Judy Cloyd, director, HR; and Derek Ehmen, VP, technical logistics, that much more challenging and vital.

“We couldn’t have done this without those people,” Mazza adds, “and about 3,000 other very hardworking skilled people who were on their teams, getting this all done. I’m incredibly grateful for that and very lucky that we have an embarrassment of riches in talented people that happen to be as passionate as I am about doing the Games and keep coming back to do it no matter where we are.”

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