An inside look at NBC Sports' Olympics television production
STAMFORD, Conn. - Whenever NBC broadcasts an Olympics, it sends a small army of staff to bring the spectacle home to American viewers.
This year, though, not everyone involved with the Comcast-owned network is based in Sochi. In addition to the over 1,000 people in Russia, 400 are working at the NBC Sports Group's dazzling studio complex in Stamford, Conn.
And whereas for decades, the focus has been primarily on creating the best television show possible, now there's an almost equivalent push to make online streaming a big deal.
Add to that a nine-hour difference between Sochi and Stamford, and you get a recipe for a massive undertaking. The end product is 539 hours of television coverage across five channels, and over 1,000 hours of live streaming of every event except for the Opening Ceremony.
If it seems like every Olympics production is bigger than the last, there's a good reason. As technologies expand and adapt at an ever-faster pace, NBC tries as best it can to keep up. Consider that the iPad didn't exist yet when the last Winter Games took place in Vancouver four years ago.
So what goes into producing all of the content you see on TV and online? In addition to the 1,400 combined workers in Sochi and Stamford, there's millions of dollars worth of production equipment.
A total of 700 cameras are capturing events at all of the event sites and broadcast studios. They transmit over 50 broadcast feeds across 192 miles of fiber optic cable at NBC's compound in Sochi.
All of that content is then sent by either fiber optic cable or satellite to one of the network's six American production sites. In addition to Stamford, there are facilities in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. (where CNBC and MSNBC's studios are based); Dry Creek, Colo., near Denver; Burbank, Calif.; Telemundo's studios in Hialeah, Fla., near Miami; and NBC's famed Rockefeller Center headquarters in Manhattan.
In the past, Rockefeller Center was the main site for highlights production. Now that work takes place in a custom-designed room at the Stamford complex that has over 100 monitors, and can seat up to 50 workers at any time.
Although the Olympics only come around every two years, for those few weeks when the games are live it's a production effort without any equal. That's why NBC, which has Olympics TV rights through 2020, built the Stamford complex with the Games very much in mind.
The Olympics' influence on Stamford includes a touch of whimsy. Scattered around the complex are conference rooms named after cities that have hosted the Games, from Sapporo, Japan (1972) to Pyeongchang, South Korea (2018).
In addition to being a production hub, Stamford is also used as a site for curling broadcasts. The announcing crew of Fred Roggin, Kevin Martin and Pete Fenson is based in the U.S., and calls action off monitors. NBC also has another team that works at the curling venue in Sochi.
It's not the first time that NBC has kept some announcing crews in the U.S. to call games from studios. The network did so for the 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics. With so many events to cover, keeping some crews in the U.S. allows the network to save money. And given the increases in television production quality over the last few years, it's not as hard as it used to be to work off a monitor instead of on site.
It's also fair to say that a sport of curling's relative simplicity is one that you don't necessarily have to be on site to describe well. After all, the camera is always close to the athletes, and there aren't names or numbers to have to figure out from a distance.
Whether or not TV viewers notice a difference, the workers in Stamford definitely do. One of the most influential people in that group is Tim Canary, NBC Sports' vice president of engineering. It's his job to make sure that the transmissions from Sochi to the U.S. are working right.
Canary acknowledged that broadcasting from a coastal town on Russia's Black Sea is more difficult than doing so from a bustling metropolis in the Americas or western Europe.
"When you look at where Sochi is, it's far away from a lot of common infrastructure," he said. "Look at Sochi versus Vancouver - Vancouver is a major metropolitan area, so for us, some of the challenges were logistical challenges of getting things there, back and forth."
Or, as Canary put it more bluntly: "If I had to Federal Express something to Vancouver, I could do it very easily. You can't FedEx something to Sochi."
As such, NBC had to send a lot of its production equipment to Sochi by sea and air months in advance of the Olympics beginning.
One of the signature components of the Stamford operation is Gold Zone, an online-only broadcast that jumps around whatever events are live at a given hour. It's on air from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Eastern Time each day - 4:00 p.m. to midnight in Sochi - and is modeled on the wildly successful NFL Red Zone TV channel.
Gold Zone has its own dedicated production staff and studio. If you walked into the studio you wouldn't know the content isn't put on television. The setup looks just the same as what you'd find for the Premier League, National Hockey League or any of NBC's other sports properties.
It's an Olympic junkie's dream - and as you might imagine, it's very demanding work for those involved. The production staff checks in at around 5:00 a.m. to start preparing for that day's action.
They're just one part of a 24-hour cycle, though. Events in Sochi start as early as 2:00 a.m. Eastern, and late-night television broadcasts on NBC's over-the-air network don't wrap up until 1:00 a.m. So there isn't much time at all between when one day's coverage ends and the next day's begins.
NBC hasn't always had that strategy, though. The network has long been renowned for packaging highlights into tape-delayed presentations in prime time, and for many years that meant not showing big events live during the day.
But that changed when Mark Lazarus became chairman of the NBC Sports Group in 2011, after Comcast bought NBC. Although the prime time presentation is still the network's biggest ratings driver, Lazarus spearheaded the drive to significantly expand Olympics content in the digital realm.
Within a few months of Lazarus' arrival, NBC became the first TV network to stream the Super Bowl live on its website.
Tom Seeley, vice president of editorial for the digital arm of NBC Sports, called the decision a watershed moment.
"That was an indication, I think, that some of the restrictions we had been dealing with in the past were starting to be loosened," he said.
Lazarus' first Olympics in charge were the 2012 Summer Games in London. Just as that was "a tipping point for viewers," as he said in a recent conference call with reporters, it was also a tipping point for NBC.
"We learned a lot in London, where we aired a lot of events live that were previously saved for prime time," Lazarus said. "It looks like this change has benefited pretty much everyone - the viewers, markets and all of our distribution platforms, as well as our own partners."
It might be fair to wonder whether Lazarus' list was ranked from least to most important. Viewers have long demanded more live coverage, but NBC didn't change its ways until doing so made sense for the bottom line.
"As we continued to experiment with putting things on live during the day in London... even though it was on tape-delay, our prime time ratings continued to go up," Lazarus said.
Seeley also noted the importance of digital advertising revenue as a factor in the network's decision-making process.
"I totally understand the arguments for a long time - the dollars at stake on that [TV] side of the world are much higher, traditionally, than the dollars at stake here," he said. "But there's real dollars on our side of the world, too, and it's not just the buzzing fly in the back of an Excel document."
Expect even more live coverage, both online and on TV, when the Summer Olympics head to Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Having the Games in Brazil means events will take place in good time zones for American viewers, and thus for NBC.
And yes, that will include the Opening Ceremony. Lazarus confirmed that the network will air the event live. But after that - such as with the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea - NBC might go back to tape delay. For as much as NBC's philosophy has changed, the network remains insistent on presenting the Opening Ceremony spectacle as a packaged event in prime time.
If that means American fans can't watch it live, even online, so be it.
"Let's talk four years from now," Lazarus said. "I continue to believe, having now been in the stadium to watch Opening Ceremonies and [also] watching on television, that historical and cultural context and relevance make [a tape-delayed production] a more enjoyable and informative experience."
The online aspect of the Olympics presentation has as its backbone a requirement that viewers sign in through their pay-TV providers in order to watch streams. That means only people who are already paying for NBC's cable channels can access the content - and cord-cutters are left out.
At the end of the day, Comcast is the ultimate bankroller of NBC's Olympics coverage. The money that built the backbone for transmitting Olympics broadcasts to you - and that paid the International Olympic Committee for the privilege - comes from your cable bills more now than it ever has.
But from NBC's perspective, it's not just about having Comcast as a parent. Indeed, one of the terms of Comcast's purchase of NBC from General Electric was that NBC had to treat Comcast and every other pay-TV provider equally.
That's part of why NBC has had to negotiate deals with individual pay-TV providers to get their subscribers access to Olympics live streams. The process isn't automatic - indeed, it isn't even a function of the agreements that get channels like NBCSN onto cable and satellite systems.
The deals are done on a sport-by-sport basis, which is why the number of providers offering access to online streams of the Olympics is different from the number offering access to the NFL, NHL or English Premier League soccer.
Lazarus has no problem with the process, at least publicly. He said he'd just as soon like to get along with everyone, but it's safe to say he'd like to do so on his terms.
"The cable operators and all of the MVPDs are our business partners," Lazarus said. "I think it is in our industry's best interest to have this pay television ecosystem preserved for all of us and for our shareholders... I think they understand that we believe we are in business with them, not against them."
Seeley said he hopes "that the momentum coming out of [the Olympics] will hope in other negotiations, if done well."
"We want to be at the forefront of driving TV Everywhere, because it's core to our business on a number of levels," he added.
As Lazarus concluded his recent conference call, he couldn't help giving a pointed response to to a question about negotiating deals for online streams.
"It depends on who your provider is - and hopefully it's Comcast there in Philadelphia," he said.
The message was as clear as the skies over Sochi have been on NBC's broadcasts.