NBC's Ambitious Olympics Coverage

By Chris Preimesberger  |  Posted 2008-07-15

NBC's Ambitious Olympics Coverage

NBC is busy putting the finishing touches on its near-round-the-clock coverage of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games that debut Aug. 8, and IT storage will play a significant role in the success or failure of the effort.

Since the international event was first televised live by ABC in 1960 from Rome, no network has ever attempted to produce this much footage of an Olympiad. 

When the Games host the closing ceremonies Aug. 24, the network will have broadcast just shy of 3,000 hours of swimming, track and field, gymnastics, volleyball, baseball, basketball, fencing, water polo, horseback riding, and numerous other competitions. About 25 percent of it will go "in the can" for archiving.

NBC's Beijing TV schedule, released July 8, includes about 2,900 hours of live TV coverage. That live coverage, broadcast over NBC and MSNBC, will exceed the total number of U.S. television hours-which now stands at 2,562, to be exact-for all previous summer Olympic Games combined.

About half of this expected footage will be shot in high-definition video. Consider that 96 hours of HD (4MB per second) footage comprises about 1 raw terabyte of storage capacity; that means about 11TB of storage will be necessary for HD alone.

The remainder of the footage will be shot in standard format (2MB per sec) to be distributed for Webcasts and handheld devices. That footage will take up somewhere around 6TB of storage.

Most of what will be filmed won't be thrown away during the event. Basically, NBC and its partners will be doing in Beijing what the big movie makers do every day in producing computer-generated films: file-based supercomputing, only with no special effects outside of many "intros" and "outros." The "special effects" will mostly be provided live, courtesy of the several thousand world-class athletes gathered in mainland China.

The network will be storing all that raw and edited digital footage in impressive storage data centers that include Isilon Systems and Omneon Video Networks hardware and software packages.

Reinventing Live Television Coverage

How does a network shoot, edit and air all that video in a manner that will tell all the various stories and keep viewers interested? Simple: It distributes everything.

Matt Adams, vice president of broadcast solutions at Omneon, worked for NBC for 10 years. He was brought to Omneon two years ago to come up with new applications of its technology and to find new markets.

"This, of course, is a huge amount of finished content to be delivered, so we had to come up with a pretty radical workflow in order to make that much content," Adams told me. "We also didn't want to haul everybody and their uncle over to Beijing, because [NBC] couldn't afford it, basically."

Omneon worked with NBC for more than a year to come up with a workflow plan "that would allow people to work at home in the United States and repurpose the content that NBC captures over there and deliver it to the different distribution outlets," Adams said.

Adams, Omneon and NBC came up with a concept called "proxy-based workflow."

"This requires making low-res copies of thousands of hours of competitions that are captured in our storage system in Beijing, and using a product called ProCast-a video acceleration management product that proxies the images over to another media-grid storage server in New York," Adams said.

"Then all 40 [at-home] editors-we call them shot-pickers-make their shot selections using the proxies. Once they decide which shots they want to make a deliverable piece with, then the system sends the proxies back to Beijing [to NBC's data center headquarters], where the high-res clips are called up from the main arrays to match the [low-res MPG4] proxies that have been selected."

An XML file of metadata is made for each low-res video package that accompanies the video via virtual private network to Beijing. NBC production editors in Beijing-or, as a backup, in New York-then use the metadata to locate and link the individual high-res pieces together at their own editing workstations to construct a finished piece. Those editors responsible for the finished content can pick and choose what they want from the shot-pickers' selections.

Only after the piece has been plotted out shot by shot is the accompanying high-res video brought up from the storage arrays to make a broadcast-worthy file.

This saves a great deal of time, effort, power and I/O in threading through all the hours of video to be shot. "We'd clog up the data pipes between the at-home editors, New York and Beijing if we didn't use proxies," Adams said.

Affiliates Demand Network On-Demand

Viewers of NBC Olympic Webcasts will be able to request specific events on demand, if they missed them the first time on the live broadcast-or if they simply want to watch everything on their desktop or laptop computer screens. Everything will be accessible at NBC.com and MSNBC.com.

Main event highlights will be available for mobile video devices, including BlackBerrys, mobile phones and iPhones, Adams said.

It's not been a challenge to shoot the raw content, Adams said. The challenge has always been what to do with it.

"We have about 180TB of storage available to us in Beijing. We'll have about 4,000 total hours saved on the system, with about 3,000 or so being broadcast," Adams said.

This is a good example of where things are going in the traditional broadcast business, he said.

"Network broadcasters have always been myopic in how they distribute content; the network structure in this country and pretty much around the world is that way," he said. "The secondary markets are starting to mature, are stuck for content and have now gotten the ear of the old-guard networks that they need to be serviced."

Now all that remains is for the Games to begin and for people to start watching. Hopefully it will all pay off for NBC, which has invested several billion dollars into this 16-day event and hopes to raise its overall ratings as a result.

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