NBC Uni preps expanded Olympics coverage


Third in a monthly series of 12 articles dealing with the international media's preparations for the Beijing Olympics and the cultural and practical challenges facing thousands of producers headed to China's capital in 2008.

NEW YORK -- By the time NBC Universal broadcasts the closing ceremony of next year's Summer Olympics, it will have provided more coverage from Beijing in a little more than two weeks than the total of all the Olympics since 1960.

Ever since 2000, NBC Uni has used its broadcast and cable platforms to provide hours of Olympics coverage day and night. The big-ticket primetime events always go to NBC, which devotes its entire schedule and then some to the games and brings along "Today" and "NBC Nightly News" as well. Other NBC Uni outlets including USA, MSNBC and even CNBC get into the act as well as its Spanish-language network, Telemundo.

But in 2008, NBC Uni will take it exponentially further. The company will carry a record 3,600 hours of Olympic events live between the opening ceremony Aug. 8 and the closing Aug. 24. That's more than triple the 1,210 hours NBC did in 2004 and 20 times more than the 171 hours from Atlanta in 1996.

"It's a big operation," said the man charged with running coverage for NBC, Olympics executive producer David Neal. "We'll be delivering more content from Beijing than we ever have for an Olympics."

To be sure, most of those hours of coverage won't be on TV. NBC, USA, MSNBC, CNBC and Telemundo will have hours of coverage, as will their high-definition channels. But 2,200 hours have been added through the dramatic expansion of broadband and digital platforms, far exceeding what was available in technology or coverage even four years ago.

"The hours of broadband and Internet coverage is adding extra layers in a very robust and timely way," Neal said. "It's new territory for us. It's taking what is already a very challenging endeavor and maxing it out."

Like the games themselves, when multiple events are being held at multiple venues all at once, NBC is going to allow viewers to watch almost everything they could ever hope for at NBCOlympics.com. And though cell phone technology isn't yet as ubiquitous, NBC also will offer live events that way. Those plans have yet to be announced.

The Olympics are immensely important to NBC -- Beijing will be its fifth Olympics since 2000, and it paid $2.2 billion in June 2003 for the rights to the 2010 and 2012 games. That's up 32% from the $1.5 billion NBC paid for the 2006 and 2008 games. NBC bills itself as "America's Olympics Network," part of a strategy that gradually has changed its focus to such premier sports properties as Wimbledon and the NFL in addition to the Olympics.

It's an all-encompassing endeavor that also heavily involves NBC parent company General Electric, whose units that sell jet engines and medical imaging equipment stand to benefit from the close contact NBC has with China for the Olympics. GE expects $500 million in additional revenue stemming from the games; it took in $900 million for the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. A recent report in the Financial Times, which NBC and GE execs denied, said that GE has delayed putting NBC on the block until the 2008 Olympics are over.

NBC puts a lot of effort into its coverage, the planning of which begins long before the games open.

Planning for 2008 officially began in January 2003, when Neal, NBC Sports/Olympics chairman Dick Ebersol and NBC Olympics president Gary Zenkel first traveled to China. That was a year and a half before the 2004 Summer Games started, a process that Neal said is normal.

"Generally we'll go to the next upcoming city, winter or summer, before we've done the (coverage of) immediate predecessor," Neal said. "We were making trips to (2010 Winter Olympics host city) Vancouver before (2006 host) Torino."

The overarching concern right now is engineering, making sure that NBC will be able to transmit live coverage flawlessly between China and the audiences back home. Neal said that learning to function in a new environment is always challenging, but he's got a good feeling about the progress the Chinese have been making and faith in the NBC engineers.

Dave Mazza, senior vp at NBC Engineering, said his teams are traveling to China "pretty regularly" but that the bulk will begin arriving in May and June for the countdown to the opening ceremony.

Once there, they'll have quite a schedule. Mazza said the International Broadcast Center is built in about 45 days and tested for 14 days before it goes into operation for the games. NBC will install its edit rooms, control rooms, studios and other sites in June and begin testing the IBC in early July.

"(With) all the new-media deliverables -- for VOD, mobile, Web, etc. -- (it) is a very ambitious undertaking involving tons of bandwidth, file acceleration, streaming, metadata and a lot of software to enable much of it to be searchable by the end users," Mazza said.

The Chinese are making a lot of progress in putting down digital fiber optics and other infrastructure to allow for 100% high definition in the 1080i standard. These will be the first all-high-def Olympic broadcasts, and it also means that cell phones will have the same high-quality source video as those broadcasts.

NBC will send 95% of its digital video back to the U.S. via fiber-optic equipment that is being installed thanks to an agreement between AT&T and China Netcom. The rest will be via satellite. The speeds are much faster, too. During the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, NBC used satellite feeds that moved 155 megabits per second. The AT&T/China Netcom fiber optics will move more than 1,500 mps.

"The Beijing organizers are making sure that every one of the venues are fiber optic, all 35 sports, and coming back to the broadcast center in perfect digital fiber optic fashion because that's what you need," Neal said. "They're definitely doing it first-class."

Last month's Women's World Cup soccer tournament, which drew TV networks from around the world to host country China, was widely seen as a dry run for August. It's a test that many of the networks, including ESPN, say the Chinese passed. NBC has had its own dry run, thanks to the one-year countdown celebration that was broadcast Aug. 8 from Tiananmen Square for NBC's flagship morning show "Today." It was one of the first times a live TV signal had ever come out of China without the government's control.

"The Chinese (and the state-run TV company) had fiber optics everywhere we needed it," Neal said. "We were able to get a signal out of Tiananmen Square and bring it right back to the U.S."

NBC's business partnership is with the International Olympic Committee, though the company is working with Chinese officials and has found them agreeable.

"We have the most positive relationship with the organizing committee in China, by extension all of the authorities," Neal said. "They want nothing more than these games to be a positive success."

NBC worked with the IOC to ensure that key events such as swimming and gymnastics in Beijing -- 12 time zones ahead of New York -- would be live in East Coast primetime. That change will go a long way to making sure that attention will be heavy, unlike in Athens and Sydney, when the events were over and results available on the Web long before U.S. audiences tuned in. While having event finals in the morning has proved to be controversial elsewhere in the world, NBC will have a major chip in its favor when trying to sell the games stateside.

NBC won't have cameras at all 35 sports, leaning heavily on the IOC and the expertise of TV chief Manolo Romero, who is in charge of Beijing Olympic Broadcasting. Romero already has arranged for 14 cameras at the weightlifting venue, for instance, including one underneath the Olympians. There will be a dozen cameras for field hockey and 14 at handball. Neal said these touches ensure that NBC doesn't have the expense or the bother of setting up its own cameras there.

It also frees the network to put extra cameras at high-profile venues like swimming, enough that NBC will have its own feed for American audiences who are interested in the exploits of Michael Phelps, the U.S. medalist who is heavily favored to make Olympic history by winning eight gold medals in Beijing. He won eight medals, six of them gold, in Athens.

It doesn't hurt that all of Phelps' exploits will happen in primetime in the U.S.
Phelps is a major focus of NBC Sports, which is developing the story lines that will end up being key to U.S. audiences' interest in the Summer Games.

"Michael Phelps will be the story as we move toward Beijing," said Rowdy Gaines, NBC's swimming commentator. "His quest for Olympic history will be unprecedented."

Gaines plans to spend lots of time with Phelps in the months leading up to the Olympic trials in July in Omaha, Neb.

"We always look for something that is special from our Olympic athletes and are amazed when the 'unattainable' actually happens," Gaines said. "No one in Olympic history has won eight gold medals in a single Olympic Games." U.S. swimmer Mark Spitz won seven in 1972.

The pace of features will pick up in the next year, with NBC reporters and correspondents filing travelogues and other stories from around China. One correspondent just finished a two-week odyssey through China for reports that will be broadcast throughout the Olympic coverage.

While NBC teams are constantly going in and out of China, its vanguard will be a small engineering crew that will arrive after the first of the year when the IBC is completed. This team will continue to work in China until July, when the bulk of the 3,000-member strong NBC Sports crew will arrive. Most of the 3,000 employees are temporary personnel in for the games.

Meanwhile, NBC will continue its planning. A two-day meeting held outside of network headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Plaza brought together all of the technical and production crew. Another recent daylong planning meeting between NBC Sports technical and production teams did not focus on Beijing but rather on the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

"Beijing is something that is being worked on every day," Neal said.