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Race to the Finish

When it comes to Olympic miracles, most involve athletic achievement. But the miracle of this month's games from Athens is more basic: It looks like the city will be ready. And that's good news for Dave Mazza, who heads technical operations for NBC Olympics.

"They're still planting the grass and trees, but it's been an amazing transformation," says Mazza. "Two months ago, I was wondering how they were going to finish on time." The preparation pace has been significant. He says he would pass stacks of trees waiting to be planted and see 200 in the ground the next day.

Now Mazza and his broadcast team (more than 2,500 people will be involved in the operation) can focus on the real task. They need to ensure that everything is in place for the big moment at the opening ceremonies.

The Olympics division has built a 75,000-square-foot facility within the International Broadcast Center, big enough to rank as NBC's third-largest broadcast production facility after its New York and Burbank operations. Even more impressive: The plant was put together in less than 40 days.

The facility includes four control rooms, four studios, five linear-editing rooms, five nonlinear-editing suites, a transmission area, a central tape area, and graphics and other production areas. It also uses the "Racks in a Box System," or RIBS for short.

RIBS were first used at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. They allow NBC to preconfigure 20- x 8-foot platforms to hold the backbone gear that connects the facility. A total of 13 RIBS are being used in Athens; their use has cut setup time in half compared with the 1996 Atlanta games. Once the RIBS are pulled out of storage, set in place and hooked to a power source, they are ready to go.

There will be four RIBS for videotape machines, three RIBS with signal-acquisition and -monitoring gear, and single RIBS units for master routing, RF quality control and processing, control-room gear, graphics, communications/intercoms, and phone-switching.

"It's business as usual, with much of the same stuff being used with some modification," says Mazza. Two of those changes are new, smaller RIBS (also called "short RIBS") to handle communications and phone-switching and graphics.

RIBS aren't the only trick NBC is repeating for the Athens games.

Two transportable, self-contained studios built of 5-inch-thick interlocking steel acoustical panels will be used for their third straight Games. Dubbed JAWS ("Just Add Water Studios"), the 2,400-square-foot studios require only power and chilled water for air-conditioning to be fully operational.

Unlike the last time they were used, in Salt Lake City, two JAWS studios will be located next to one another, as will control rooms A and B. They've also been modified to be compliant with the 2004 Olympics earthquake codes.

RIBS and JAWS help simplify preparation for the Games.

This year's Olympic production will be massive, with viewers able to tune in to NBC, MSNBC, USA, CNBC, Telemundo and Bravo to catch the most comprehensive coverage to date. For example, for the first time, NBC will cover every event, requiring a presence at 28 venues—even a soccer stadium on the island of Crete. The network will also rely heavily on the host broadcaster's Olympic feed, which will be available to all broadcasters. It cuts down on the camera and wiring clutter.

"We've bitten off a tremendous amount of coverage, and that has everyone a little on edge," says Mazza. "In the aggregate, we don't have much more equipment, and there are less people. So it's a pretty big load to carry for some of the newer workflows."

It's also a bigger load on the transmission. Thanks to ever-evolving compression techniques, NBC will be able to send 12 feeds, three times as many as were sent from Sydney, in the same amount of bandwidth used in 2000. "The transmission side is solid," says Mazza. AT&T is providing the services, with three primary transmission paths configured for six 20-Mbps (megabits-per-second) standard-definition feeds. (Live coverage will use two satellite transmission paths.) The NBC HD feed will be sent back via fiber at 40 Mbps, with AT&T providing backup.

The real action, however, will be in the control rooms.

Each control room is outfitted with a Sony DVS-9000 video switcher, with four internal digital video-effect (DVE) channels and four external DVE channels. Calrec Alpha 100 will handle audio for control rooms A and B; Zeta mixers will do the same for the other two.

For now, the challenge is in bringing it all together. It makes for a grueling few weeks, but newfound adrenaline is on the way. "For all we've heard about the problems with traffic, completion of the venues and security," Mazza says, "[the Greeks and the International Olympic Committee] are pulling it together. Things are pretty upbeat. Once the opening ceremonies start, we'll get a new boost of energy.

Next week:
The production side of NBC's Olympics coverage