NBC, Sony team in Olympic effort

In 1996, NBC's Olympic technology breakthrough was creating a "virtual IBC," using fiber-optic lines to link production personnel and equipment at the International Broadcast Center (IBC) in Atlanta and 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York. That way, the network could avoid building a huge dedicated production facility in Atlanta, while improving existing graphics and editing systems in New York.

For Sydney, NBC has RIBS and JAWS.

No, it's not Aussie slang. RIBS (Racks in a Box System) and JAWS (Just Add Water Studios) represent NBC's modular vision of Olympics production. Having acquired the rights to five Olympic Games in 1995, NBC is looking at new operational efficiencies by creating dedicated systems that will be reused from one Games to the next (see Q & A with NBC's Olympics VP of Engineering Dave Mazza). Though RIBS and JAWS may be tweaked slightly in the future, the network plans to rely on the same fundamental technology through 2008.

At the core of NBC's Olympic technology campaign is RIBS, which was conceived by NBC Olympics Director of Technology Matthew Adams. It is a system of modular units comprising 8- by 20-foot steel platforms with 10 racks mounted on each side, topped by an aluminum cable tray. Made to fit perfectly in standard-size overseas shipping containers, RIBS features a sophisticated shock-isolation system that can withstand forces up to 40 Gs.

A total of 12 RIBS were prewired and outfitted with broadcast equipment at Sony's Systems Integration Center in San Jose, Calif., last winter and shipped to Australia this spring. Sony engineers then arrived on June 1 and hooked the system back together in a span of four days.

According to Dave Mazza, NBC Olympics vice president of engineering, RIBS was designed so that individual subsystems, such as routing or intercom systems, fit within one platform. "Between the entire RIBS fleet, there are 240 racks, which is a lot of wiring," says Mazza. "But the beauty is that the wiring is now done. It was done and tested before it left Sony SIC. That allows us to have much less time on site, which saves us a lot of money and time away from home."

Although hooking up the RIBS for a test run in San Jose made life easy for NBC, it was a difficult assignment for Sony, which signed a deal in 1997 to outfit NBC's broadcast facilities for the 2000 through 2008 Olympics.

"The challenge was to stage the entire RIBS group and show 80% functionality," says Chris Sumney, senior general manager/vice president of Sony's systems engineering and integration group. "Luckily, we have 60,000 square feet [in San Jose]. But we had to time our projects and organize ourselves. It was a massive effort."

Sony provided more than half of the $80 million in broadcast equipment that NBC will use to produce the Sydney Games. In all, its systems team has managed 1.5 million feet of cable and integrated 20,000 pieces of equipment-12,000 from Sony, 8,000 from other manufacturers-into 250 racks and more than 200 consoles. That's counting the RIBS, production systems for various Olympic venues, and deployable edit systems. (NBC will use 19 linear edit suites throughout Sydney.)

More than 150 Sony cameras equipped with Canon lenses will capture the Sydney action for NBC, and 300 Sony Digital Betacam VTRs will handle program recording, editing and playback. NBC will also test a few new IMX MPEG-2 decks. Mazza says the sheer volume of material during the Games-some 50,000 hours-combined with the 15-hour turnaround made using disk storage prohibitive for playback.

NBC will use some Sony MAV-555 disk recorders for editing, in conjunction with BVE-9100 linear editors. NBC has also made a large commitment to Avid nonlinear editors and will have five different Avid "clusters," which consist of multiple Symphony editors tied together by a common Unity storage system.

NBC will use Sony's new DVS-7350A production switcher and DVEs (digital video effects) from both Sony and Accom. Traditional graphics equipment is being supplied by Quantel and Chyron. The network will also use Peak/Everest 3-D-animation software running on three SGI Onyx computers, as well as new Proximity software from Xenomax that will allow graphics to be interchanged between systems from different manufacturers.

Other notable IBC gear includes Zaxcom audio consoles, 360 Systems disk recorders and Snell & Wilcox standards converters. Digital ENG packages from RF Systems will be used to cover cycling, the marathon and the triathlon. NEP affiliate MPS has also provided two all-digital mobile units to NBC, which will use them in Sydney for track-and-field and gymnastics. NBC's remaining six mobile units are being leased from Australian vendors.

NBC has extended the modular concept to the studio with JAWS: two self-contained units that require chilled only water (and some power) for Olympic operation. They had already been shipped as part of the 120 containers that NBC sent to Sydney.

"They are two massive structures," says Mazza. "They're 60 feet long by 100 feet wide, 30 feet tall, and made out of 5-inch-thick steel acoustical panels. They're entirely self-contained. The steel superstructure, the panels, everything actually, was shipped over in containers, and it'll be shipped back to Salt Lake and erected there. It's over a million pounds' worth of stuff just for the studios."

The JAWS units were built in December 1999 with Athens' stringent seismic codes in mind for the 2004 Games. In addition to handling earthquakes, they should also do well in the heat-they come with 180 tons of air conditioning.