London 2012: Producing ‘Today’ From Afar

By Alex Weprin 

Between the basketball arena and the athletes village, in the northeastern section of the Olympic Park in London, NBC has set up what seems like a small village with one purpose: to broadcast “Today” live from the Olympic games.

There is a control room, a green room and production offices in makeshift buildings–completely separate from NBC’s enormous complex in the International Broadcast Centre a 20 minute walk away–and at the center of it all a large set that the network has used at every Olympics going back to Athens in 2004 (with the exception of Vancouver 2010).

Hundreds of people crowd around the barriers to get a glimpse of the athletes, anchors and guests. The crowd seems to be mostly Americans, although a few savvy Brits told me they heard it was a good place to see some of the more popular competitors, as well as celebrities like chef Jamie Oliver.

“Few things in life actually exceed your expectations, and this really has,” co-anchor Savannah Guthrie told me. “The energy is infectious, the enthusiasm, every athlete that comes on has this inspiring story to tell, it is hard not go get caught up in it.”

On this day, however, the show started on a somber note. “Today” began with a follow-up on the tragic shooting at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin. As the show opened, Guthrie and Matt Lauer sat at the anchor desk, with the set itself separated from the crowd by thick glass, which blocked out almost all the noise from outside. Later on, after the serious coverage at the top of the show, the crew quickly slid the glass partition away, opening up the set to the plaza outside.

“That is a challenge we grapple with every day, because the show is three hours long and we do a mix of serious news and lighter fare, but all the more so when you are actually on the Olympics set, and there are crowds here and all this enthusiasm,” Guthrie says. “You want to cover a story that is serious with the correct tone, but we are set up to do that. Our tone matches whatever story we are covering.”

As Lauer notes, this isn’t the first time a tragedy has overshadowed the Olympics.

“I remember being in Atlanta when TWA 800 went down,” Lauer told me in between segments. “We immediately refocused our energy and attention: some of us jumped on a plane to cover that, and then went back to Atlanta. A few days later, the Olympic bombing happened. There is always something that dominates the headlines away from the Olympic Games, and first and foremost we are a news show, so you cover those stories, you just do so from an unusual location.”

The location, far away from NBC’s New York headquarters, is  a source of excitement and also frustration for the staff of the program.

On the one hand, the location gives them access to history, both at the Games and in the city:

“I do think just overall being here in London has been great all-around, starting with our broadcast from the Tower of London, it was pretty spectacular bringing a show live from such an iconic piece of history. Think of all those that were tortured there, and there we were!,” news anchor Natalie Morales quipped.

On the other hand, the show is effectively in isolation for a few weeks:

“As you see we don’t travel lightly, all of the things you take for granted in the studio at home, you are now trying to do on a remote location,” Lauer said. “The other thing to be quite honest is just being away from home. [At home] You have got family time, here you are working or around work 24 hours a day.”

Morales noted that despite broadcasting from within Olympic park, the work schedule means that it is sometimes hard to keep up with what is happening in the events themselves, outside of any potential segments on the show.

“Even though we hold the rights to the games, the challenge is in the hotel, where we really haven’t been able to watch it,” Morales said. “We watched the BBCs coverage, but sometimes you do feel like you are little out of the loop until you get the Twitter updates. My husband was here last week, and he said he felt like he was more up to date watching the Olympics on TV than I was being there in the middle of it all.”

More photos from the set:

Meredith Vieira, Guthrie and Morales joke about a pair of "knickers" with Lauer


A sign backstage with autographs of all the guests that appeared on the show.