NBC Climbs the High-Def Mountain

NBC will make Olympic history this year, broadcasting the entire Olympic Games in high-definition—even though only a small fraction of U.S. homes own HD TV sets.

The network’s complete conversion to HD underscores a new reality in the TV business: After years of waiting for cheaper prices and more-flexible equipment, the HD experience is ready for prime time, reliable enough for NBC to make a total-HD production out of one the most popular and most valuable sports franchises in the world.

“One of the first things I saw when I walked into the IBC [International Broadcasting Center] in Torino,” says David Neal, executive VP, NBC Olympics, “was a whole monitor wall dominated by high-def screens. The test shots coming out of some venues, running off high-def tape, were stunningly spectacular.”

The network faces some complex hurdles, in part because it must support standard-definition (SD) feeds for a predominantly analog U.S. audience. NBC will also have to work with the European 50-frames-per-second television standard and convert it to the U.S. 60-frames-per-second frame rate before transmitting it back to New York. NBC will produce a single stream of widescreen (16:9 aspect ratio) HD coverage for all sports, downconverting to 4:3 standard-definition for NBC’s analog networks, which include MSNBC, CNBC and USA.

NBC Universal will offer a total of 302 hours of HD coverage. A simulcast of NBC’s primary analog coverage will be carried on NBC’s digital stations on NBC HD. High-def cable network Universal HD will provide simulcasts of Olympic programming carried on USA, MSNBC and CNBC.

More than 50% of the Olympic sports will be shot and produced in HD, including figure skating, hockey, speed skating, ski jumping, freestyle skiing, and the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. Other sports will be shot in 16:9 standard-definition and upconverted to HD when they hit NBC’s 75,000-square-foot IBC.

The only sport that won’t be produced and edited in HD is curling, which proved surprisingly popular the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City. It will be produced in SD, partly because it airs on cable network CNBC and partly because NBC is trying a new remote production setup it calls “Curling-At-Home” (see box, p. 8).

“Still a Learning Curve for HD”

While the Winter Olympics have far fewer venues than the Summer Games, Torino presents logistical challenges because the sites are scattered and Sestriere, the site of the Alpine events, is a 90-minute drive from the IBC in good weather. Fortunately, advances in communications technology will allow most NBC staffers to remain on-site at individual venues. In total, NBC will rely on just under 3,000 people to produce the Games.

There is “still a learning curve for HD,” Neal says. One challenge is that technologies taken for granted in the SD world, such as wireless radio-frequency (RF) camera systems, have just been developed for HD. Another challenge is focusing on an SD audience in an HD production environment. “As users of HD technology, what the directors have to do here is still frame for traditional 4:3,” says Neal. “They want to make sure the center of the action centers on 4:3, and they will use a little grid superimposed on the viewfinders to do that.”

Even without HD, many viewers will be surprised at NBC’s graphics and specialized cameras that will help fans more easily understand the action. Speed skating can be a difficult sport to follow, as the skaters switch lanes during races and the sleek full-body suits and aerodynamic goggles they wear make them hard to differentiate. So NBC will be using optical tracking technology that Sportvision originally developed for NASCAR coverage to insert a flag graphic identifying each skater by name and country. For ski jumping, NBC will use a Sportvision system to place a virtual line, similar to the company’s “1st and Ten” effect for football coverage, in the landing area to mark leading jumps. NBC had tried a similar system from another vendor in Salt Lake City, but the camera framing wasn’t right, says Neal. This time it will be. “It’s an easily understood way for the viewer to see how each respective jumper is doing relative to the leader,” says Neal.

Sportvision is also providing NBC with the “StroMotion” and “SimulCam” technologies invented by Dartfish, a Swiss firm specializing in sports-video analysis. Used in the Athens Games for diving coverage, in Torino, StroMotion will enhance coverage of the snowboard halfpipe and freestyle-skiing competitions.

“We will use that to far greater effect for snowboarding and aerials, breaking down the moves the athletes are doing in midair,” says Neal. “It gives the audience a much deeper appreciation for the athleticism involved.”

For the Alpine events, NBC will use SimulCam, which can produce a replay of a skier’s downhill run with a “ghost” effect superimposing the course of a fellow racer and showing where each gained or lost time. The system was used sparingly during coverage of the 2002 Games but was realistic enough that concerned viewers called NBC to ask out why two skiers were being allowed on the course at the same time. Neal says the SimulCam has been improved. “I expect we will be alarming an entire new generation of viewers,” he jokes.

SimulCam is a particularly powerful production effect, making it easy for a viewer to compare the relative performance of downhill stars like Hermann Maier and Bode Miller. “You can see who’s taking the straighter line [downhill], who’s cutting the gates on a tight line and who’s cutting the gates wider,” says Neal. “Sometimes, simple is the most effective thing to understand why one person is leading and the other isn’t.”

Feed From TOBO

One unique wrinkle to the Olympics is that NBC relies on camera feeds from host broadcaster Torino Olympic Broadcasting Organization (TOBO) for the bulk of its coverage. For example, for the men’s downhill, TOBO might have 35 cameras, where NBC might have six, located primarily at the start, finish and family area.

“The core coverage is really from the TOBO cameras, except for the start and finish, super-slo-motion cameras, and specialty cameras,” says Dave Mazza, senior VP, engineering, NBC Olympics. “So it’s important to understand their plans.”

Fiber-optic links will serve the basis of NBC’s communications infrastructure for Torino, both between the various venues and the IBC and between the IBC and NBC’s 30 Rock headquarters in New York. NBC is using AT&T fiber to send HD feeds back to New York at a little over 90 megabits per second (Mbps) while SD pictures come back at both 40 and 20 Mbps; Tandberg is providing the video encoders. NBC maintains a satellite link, too, but relies increasingly on fiber.

Major vendors for NBC’s Olympic effort include Sony, Avid Technology, Dolby and systems integrator Ascent Media; all will have support staff onsite in Torino. The workhouse machine for NBC’s production is Sony’s HDCAM high-def tape deck, which is in most of the mobile trucks NBC has booked. The SD trucks and edit suites have a mix of Sony IMX or Digital Betacam tape decks. NBC will also use the Sony MVS-8000 production switcher and new Sony 1000 and 1500 1080-line–progressive HD cameras.

NBC will be using a host of production gear from Avid Technology, including 36 Avid Media Composer Adrenaline nonlinear editors; a large Avid shared-storage system that will give NBC roughly 800 hours of high-def video storage; Pinnacle Deko character generators and Thunder production servers for graphics; and a Digidesign Icon audio postproduction system.

“All the systems are networked together and capable of moving media between them, and they are tied into the shared storage,” says Avid VP of Broadcast David Schliefer. “A couple editors are tied into the Unity ISIS, and that is all available on the network.”

To handle the high data rates of HD video, NBC is using Avid Technology’s DnxHD compression format, which compresses the 50-frame HD video down to a manageable 120-Mbps bit rate.

The most challenging venues are the Alpine-downhill and giant-slalom events, because the length of the courses requires a lot of cable and a mid-mountain technical area that has to be powered and heated. “That means lifting generators in with a helicopter. Then there are a lot of fiber conduits,” Mazza says. He quickly adds, “That cable went in before it started snowing.”