The Technology, And The People, Behind This Year’s Olympics

By Alex Weprin Comment

The International Broadcast Centre in London

The New York Times has a pair of profiles today, as Richard Sandomir speaks to NBC’s top Olympics producer (and “Today” EP) Jim Bell, while Brian Stelter examines what it takes to put the games on the air.

While Bell has managed NBC’s top morning news show for the last few years, he got his start at the Olympics.

Bell, 44, a former defensive lineman at Harvard who is 6 feet 4 and about 250 pounds, recalled an incident that occurred at the tail end of the Barcelona Games. He was told he quickly had to rustle up video of the marathon’s last-place finisher — a half-blind Mongolian named Pyambu Tuul. Tuul was nearly two hours behind the winner and had to finish outside the Olympic stadium, which was being readied for the closing ceremony.

“I chased it down through a healthy mixture of fear and desperation,” Bell said. “It was difficult to find because the Olympics were essentially over. But I found it in some host broadcasting cabin in a little cabinet where they’d brought the tape back. I pleaded with them to give me a dub of it.”

And, he added, “Bob Costas eloquently told the story of how this guy simply came to the Olympics to compete.”

With regards to the tech, NBC has prepared redundancy after redundancy, and has used technology to make little things like the Atlantic Ocean significantly less of a burden.

Some key video feeds are named for the British royals: Will is carried across the Atlantic on a separate path from Kate, in case one path is interrupted for any reason. There are backups for the backups, too, including a few satellite paths “in case everything else dies,” Mazza said.

“It all depends on the level of risk,” he said. “If it’s the prime-time show, we could get on the air about six different ways. If it’s the stream of table tennis, there might be a single thread.”

Sending so much video to the United States, a step also taken for the Beijing Games, also allows for more work to be done there, saving money for NBC. Five control rooms in New York are dedicated to the Games’ coverage, as are dozens of editors and producers. It is almost as if the engineers have erased the Atlantic Ocean off the map — but there is still a 3.5-second delay for the video to and fro.