Live From New York, It’s NBC’s Highlights Factory

The cast of Saturday Night Live may be gone for the summer, but Studio 8H at 30 Rockefeller Plaza is far from silent. A small army of staffers has overtaken the space, setting up computer workstations and portable play-by-play booths where audience members have sat to watch cast members and musical guests perform for 37 seasons.

Darryl Jefferson (seated, at left) oversees postproduction operations for NBC’s Highlights Factory.

The Highlights Factory supports the herculean effort of NBC Olympics to broadcast 5,535 hours to multiple platforms, including 3,500 hours of video streamed live to, with its own superhuman feat. Throughout the 17 days of the London Games, NBC’s Highlights Factory is a 24-hour, 670-person machine churning out content to feed the country’s insatiable Olympics appetite.

Highlights Factory staffers are split into three primary groups: digital-ad inserters, who add metadata markers to live streams; administrative staffers, including titlists; and shot selectors. Shot selectors, many of them college students, have been assigned a specific sport to follow throughout the 17 days of competition.

Shot selectors edit live and near-live raw feeds from OBS and NBC using Avid’s Interplay media-asset manager (MAM) and Forbidden Technologies’ FORscene cloud-based editing platform; the latter allows shot selectors to cut against the live stream. Depending on the day, the group produces 200-300 clips per day.

“We’re streaming everything live, and it goes out there into the world. [The shot selectors] use that stream as the source material; they’ll cut and create an [edit decision list] against that stream,” says Darryl Jefferson, director of postproduction operations, NBC Olympics. “The EDL essentially goes out the door [as a] very lightweight file that describes the cuts of the edit, and that’s what lands on the [content-delivery networks]. So, when you hit play at home, you’re essentially just pointing to pointers on that EDL at home.”

File-Based Workflow
For the first time, NBC is using an entirely file-based workflow to cover the Olympics. Video feeds leave London for New York; Stamford, CT; Hialeah, FL (for Telemundo); and Denver (for distribution to 3D).

Eleven announce booths line the Studio 8H floor for play-by-play announcers to call the action from New York.

“If you can imagine, in years past, we’ve done a lot of those things but more mechanically — old school, in a way,” says Jefferson. “We have video circuitry running throughout, but there’s a lot more IP circuitry running through from point to point.”

Feeds recorded in London are replicated to New York before traveling to Stamford, where they are loaded onto a data-tape robot. The Avid Interplay MAM has two portals — New York and London — enabling shot selectors in both locations to view local copies and create EDLs, which can then be accessed in multiple locations.

“It’s a game changer,” says Jefferson. “You can build [an EDL] here and essentially send to a variety of locations: you can send to playout servers in London, you can send it to edit suites in London, you can send to Avids here, Avids in Telemundo, Avids in Denver just by clicking and dragging.”

Nearly 4,000 volumes of archival material are stored in Stamford, which can be accessed as lightweight proxies by editors tied into NBC’s network. Previously, these volumes would have to be transported to each host city, as well as tape decks to support various formats.

“In Games past, we generally traveled with around 11 pallets of tapes,” says Jefferson. “This Games, we probably traveled with two or three pallets of tapes. The footprint of the physical tape library shrank significantly on the London side, and now you can access [footage] from anywhere in the world.”

Calling the Game From 3,000 Miles Away
Besides the shot selectors, digital-ad inserters, and administrative staffers, Studio 8H houses 11 portable play-by-play booths for those sports that are not staffed with talent on-site. NBC receives the OBS host feed, for which play-by-play anchors and analysts call the action from 30 Rock before the broadcast is fed live to multiple platforms.

“There are some luminaries here from each of the sports,” says Jefferson. “You get to bump into the legends who are calling and really adding that new layer [to the broadcast].”

An Ever Evolving Concept
The Highlights Factory, as a concept, was based in New York for the 2008 Beijing Olympics before traveling to Vancouver for the 2010 Games. However, with each edition, shifts in the technology landscape force Jefferson and company to reimagine the workflow.

Vendors are always on hand to fix any equipment issues that may arise.

“When you think of the development of this type of operation, technology moves so quickly,” he says. “Last time we did this, in Vancouver, iPads didn’t exist. [Now], all of a sudden, we have another delivery target.”

Consumption habits are also changing. With all 35 events available to viewers, NBC has been pleasantly surprised by the popularity of certain events, the traffic during the day, and the demographic engaging with the live streams.

“Let’s face it: the world’s changing, the way people take in media,” Jefferson elaborates. “We seem to be picking up more and more younger viewers. It’s exciting to reach out to a new audience with, in some cases, new sports, new coverage, and [new ways to] interact.

“We love the primetime show, and we love the daytime show, and [everything] that we normally do,” he continues, “but [the fact] that we can bring all this other [content and] bundle the whole thing for the country is very cool.”

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