Live from Rio 2016: NBC Olympics’ Content Management Backbone Churning at Historic Rate
For NBC Olympics, these Games are about far more than just the operations in Rio de Janeiro. Thousands of loggers, editors, producers, and more in numerous geographic locations across two continents will be a part of the complete content ecosystem that is the Olympics Games on the NBC family of networks.
A strong content management infrastructure is critically essential to making all of that work and this year’s system is accomplishing things never before seen by a system of its kind at an event of this unique nature. According to Darryl Jefferson, NBC Olympics’ VP, Post Operations & Digital Workflow, this content management system is handling “six to eight times” the delivery of what the previous Highlights Factory system accomplished at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
The Highlights Factory is is the backbone to NBC Olympics success, supplying all of the media assets required for everything from the main primetime show, the daytime television product, various VOD offerings, digital content destinations, and so much more.
In Rio, the team has erected an eight-crate ISIS for an Avid editing environment, two arms of Harmonic MediaGrid for the central SAN, an EMC Isilon storage array, an Aberdeen storage array, and a collection of EVS machines. All-in-all, NBC Olympics is prepared to handle and store up to a staggering 820 terabytes of main record capacity for the primary ingest wall.
Who will touch the content? Up to 180 users at the IBC in Rio, 35 at each of the four designated “A” venues (Maracanã Stadium, Olympic Stadium, gymnastics, and swimming), 170+ back in Stamford, CT, 100 more in New York City, more than 50 in a facility in Orlando, FL, another 40 in Hialeah, FL, and a handful in Colorado. All will log into the asset management system to do something with content during the Games.
One of the primary causes for the dramatically increased requirements of the system is the vast array of viewing options that NBC Olympics offers viewers back in the United States, meaning content developers are building assets for a seemingly endless list of viewing destinations. Each Olympics seems to bring new viewership behavior. At the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, the tablet wasn’t a product yet. At the last Summer Games in London in 2012, Connected TVs weren’t realized yet and 4K was still very much in its infancy. Now these Games are introducing many more social media-driven consumption points, such as Facebook Live and SnapChat.
“The world is changing,” says Jefferson. “We have gotten older since London, but also the appetite and internal needs and desires within the company for more stuff – tonnage, streaming hours, 360 video, VR, 4K (whether HDR or SDR), on and on. There’s all these layers that are beyond what we could have imaged when we were in London.”
The numbers are staggering and even they don’t sufficiently begin to tell the tale. NBC is boasting is 7,000 hours on content made available to American viewers – a tremendous amount of raw tonnage – but for the behind-the-scenes team that’s not counting assets such as ENG footage, 4K footage, etc.
“[This] is probably is the new normal,” admits Jefferson, “and, honestly, if young people are going someplace other than the primetime TV show, we have to bring it to where they watch. That’s the goal.”
Prepping this content management system has been a multi-year process dating all the way back to the previous Summer Olympics in London in August 2012. The team, under Jefferson’s direction, was looking to make a massive transition to tie operations more seamlessly into the new Stamford, CT-based NBC Sports Studios, as opposed to previous methods, that required designing a massive system and network that would be built and operate for two weeks of competition before being torn back down again. The team wanted to leverage what NBC Sports is already doing year-round with its existing systems, add some essential bells and whistles, and scale up from there.
To do that, the content management group has essentially been running a mad scientists’ lab in, “The Basement,” a sub-floor located underneath the Stamford facility. There much of the systems in place here in Rio were pre-fabbed, pre-configured, and tested. So the whole system shipped down to Rio essentially as one whole piece. It’s a method that NBC had never previously done before.
“We had all of the networking gear available and tied it into the running systems upstairs such that we were able to test how this environment would react,” says Matthew Green, Senior Digital Media Engineer for NBC Olympics. “[It wasn’t] to full scale but it was as close as reasonable possible. As a consequence to that, the baseline-type stuff we knew what was going to work and how everything was going to interact before we got down here.”
NBC Sports’s content management infrastructure features many of the similar systems to the Stamford facility back in Stamford: EVS for playback, Avid for edit, After Effects, ChryonHego, and Cinema4D for graphics, ProTools, InterplayMAM and Central UX for asset management.
In “The Basement,” Jefferson and his team ran the system through numerous tests, including adding artificial latency, modeling high-stress environments, and simulating disaster scenarios. All had the system adequately prepared but Green acknowledged that preparation can only get you so far.
“Simulations are one thing but putting actual people on actual systems distributed across two continents and five different facilities is what actually tells you if it is going to work,” says Green.
The system faced some early bumps in the road but was able to find its sea legs in the first few days of the Games but Jefferson acknowledged that everyone across the asset chain performed admirably and that things are going very well.
“One of the best things about this industry is in live television you really get to see what people are made of,” says Jefferson. “What is your team capable of and what can they face down? I’m so deeply impressed with the people I work with. They are able to stare down a seemingly unwinnable situation every day and make it through that.”