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Dozens of people jammed inside a railroad depot in Seward, Alaska, there to cheer on one of their own: Olympic swimmer Lydia Jacoby, who was competing in the 100M breaststroke event. In a surprise upset, Jacoby won gold, defeating the reigning Olympic champion Lilly King, and the favorite, South Africa’s Tatjana Schoenmaker.
In Seward, the rail depot exploded, and those in attendance jumped into the air and screamed with joy as Jacoby’s win appeared on screen.
“Go crazy, folks. One of your high schoolmates, Lydia Jacoby, is a gold medalist for Team USA. What a sweet moment,” Tirico said as the footage played.
“It was a really awesome moment that we wouldn’t have necessarily expected was going to happen,” says NBC Olympics coordinating producer Lee Ann Gschwind. “We knew that Lydia Jacoby was the first swimmer from Alaska, so we were interested in that location. I don’t think that we necessarily knew that she was going to win a gold medal, or that there would be such an amazing reaction back home. “
The pandemic upended how NBC produces televises the Olympics, but while most of those changes happened behind-the-scenes, one effort has been present every night of the games: The company’s “Friends and Family” strategy, trying to bring the celebrations that are happening in homes and hometowns around the country to viewers at home.
During normal times, NBC would have cameras trained on the family members of Olympic athletes in the stands, but without fans in Tokyo, the company had to improvise. The fruits of that labor? The viral footage from Seward, the feed of gymnast Suni Lee’s family reacting with excitement in Minnesota as she secured the all-around gold medal, or swimmer Caeleb Dressel crying as he video chatted with his family for the first time after winning gold in the 100M freestyle.
“Family has always been a part of the coverage, you think of Michael Phelps’ mom in the stands, and eventually his wife and baby in the stands, or the Raismans doing every move with Aly Raisman in her gymnastics routine,” Gschwind says. “I think we have captured that, but more, in a way, because we are more intimately in people’s homes.”
“We’ve been working on this for months, even before the news was announced that international fans would not be allowed to travel to Tokyo,” NBC Olympics primetime producer Rob Hyland said at a press event June 28. “It’s a pretty elaborate plan… It has its own production wing, and the umbrella continues to get bigger and bigger.”
And the ferrule of that umbrella is down the hall from a commissary at NBC Sports’ headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut.
In the control room — which had been used by NBC’s regional sports networks for digital clips before it was repurposed for the Olympics — a team of producers stare at a wall of screens. In the middle is live footage of the events (in this case, the night of July 28 when The Hollywood Reporter visited the control room, it was swimming and women’s 3 on 3 basketball). Surrounding those feeds are live footage from homes, restaurants, and watch parties, with friends and family staring at their own feeds of the events in progress.
NBC even co-hosted its own watch party alongside the US. Olympic Committee at Universal Orlando, flying in family members and giving them a clean video connection to Tokyo. The Orlando watch party had NBC cameras and crew on site (responsible for Dressel’s video chat), but other feeds used kits from the video transmission firm LiveU, or even iPhones.
In the event of a big win, producers in the friends and family control room would cue up the video of those celebrating, and send it out for broadcast, or for sharing on social media.
“I think we cast a pretty wide net,” Gschwind says, noting that “we didn’t look only at people we thought would win a gold medal,” but rather anyone who could be in the finals, or from an interesting place.
But if the friends and family effort is the most visible pandemic-spurred change to how the company covers the Olympics, the efforts behind the scenes were even more complicated.
“As capable as we were, we had to expand significantly,” says NBC Sports VP of engineering Tim Canary, who led the tour of NBC’s Stamford facility.
The company reduced its footprint on the ground in Japan (though it still had some 1,600 staffers in the country), and shifted production across its facilities around the world.
“This is the first year where our footprint here has eclipsed our footprint in-country,” Canary says.
The International Broadcast Center in Tokyo and NBC Sports’ Stamford headquarters were the main hubs (NBC has two control rooms in the IBC, and 10 in Stamford, including mobile production trucks), but control rooms and studios at Rockefeller Plaza, CNBC’s headquarters in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, and Telemundo’s facility in Miami, Florida were all put to use, as was space at Comcast-owned Sky in London.
In fact, all of NBC’s indoor volleyball coverage originated from London … after the company dealt with one significant hiccup. Last minute travel restrictions instituted by the U.K. meant that NBC couldn’t fly some key crew to London. Instead, they took an empty conference room in Stamford and repurposed it.
“So we have our producer and assistant director in a room here, a conference room with monitors, which is working with Sky in London, which is working with the volleyball [facility in Tokyo],” Canary said. “We invented workflows that we would only have dreamt about in the past, and that became a necessity.”
And it wasn’t just a conference room that was repurposed. Standard-sized offices were turned into control rooms, and a space usually used for storage now houses broadcast booths.
Also a necessity for these Olympics: Social distancing protocols. Those protocols meant that NBC’s “Highlights Factory,” a team that watches every event to spot clips and turn them around for highlights to be used on-air and shared on social media, couldn’t work in the same room.
Instead, the “shot pickers” as they are called, are set up in a ballroom at the Marriott hotel in downtown Stamford about a mile away, with graphics and editors working out of the main building.
“We have replay people at home, we have graphics people here for Sunday Night Football. That was not possible in the past,” Canary says. “A lot of things that we could do, that maybe shows were resistant to do, we had to do during COVID, because we couldn’t put people in trucks, we couldn’t put them in the field.”
NBC also has a few dozen remote broadcast booths in Stamford, allowing announcers and analysts to call live Olympic events from Connecticut, rather than Tokyo. While the practice began for the 2008 summer games in Beijing (Canary says it not only saves money, but reduces NBC’s footprint in the IBC), the limited staff in Tokyo made it even more of a necessity this year.
And with the launch of Peacock, knowing that live sports would be a critical strategic effort for the streaming service, NBC Sports built a Peacock-focused operations center in space that used to house cubicles and shared desks. In its place was a wall of screens, with feeds of all the events streaming on Peacock. And on each row of desks were every streaming device that users can stream the service through, from Roku to Xbox to smart TV sets, letting staff test the feeds across all of them.
Canary says that many of the adjustments they have made will continue after these games are over. While the production trucks parked outside the Stamford facility will leave after the games end, almost everything else is likely to stick around for now. After all, the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics are only 6 months away.
And the company’s friends and family production is likely to become a staple of its production for future games as well.
“Will it continue once we are in a world where people can travel more freely and things are back to normal?” Gschwind says. “I think the answer to that is yes … Maybe people’s parents get to come to the games, but I think it would be great to capture the hometown enthusiasm and support.”
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