NBC Olympics Internship Experience

NBC Olympics Internship Experience

image003During August of 2008 Beijing was more than just the largest city in the world, a place where ancient Chinese history was integrated with all of modern China’s tourist traps. Beijing was even more multifaceted than that. It was the central focus of the world, and all the world was there. It became a metaphor for international relations, and a proving ground for modern broadcast technology. This was the true pleasure and intrigue of the Olympic intern experience: Which of those various facets would we encounter next?
My internship experience was, as with all things, imperfect. There was certainly more we desired on the work side. Some other interns got far more exposure to journalists, engineers, and technicians from around the world, or greater access to the Olympic events than I did. Of those things, we in the logger pool were certainly jealous. However, working in the Central Tape division gave us an extra ability to interact with the two facets of modern technology and ancient China than did many other interns. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I can both appreciate the opportunities I had and regret those I missed.

image005I think I am not alone in feeling as if the Central Tape interns, as a whole, missed many of the interpersonal networking opportunities that runners had. runners were, necessarily, encountering new people quite often. As loggers we were working with a set group of people. A runner’s routine seemed to be anything but routine. Their work would have them completing wide varieties of tasks. A logger’s routine was very repetitive and would differ only between different sports. As a result we got to know limited number of Central Tape peers quite well, and they got to know and trust us through a very limited set of tasks. The loggers, as a group, would often observe that runners had not just more opportunities to network with larger numbers of people, but also an opportunity to show each one of them more about their various talents.

Complaints now being aired, it is possible to talk about the benefits and privileges of my internship – which were many.

One hundred-and-fifty-million-dollars were spent on technological equipment by NBC for the Olympic Games. The half of the Central Tape room in which we worked had thirty-two eighteen-thousand-dollar Sony XD Cam decks on our side of the island workstation that divided the room. Each of those decks was brand new and had brand new monitors and routers. The equipment on that wall alone was easily worth a few hundred thousand dollars. Even better, it was all state of the art.

The Sony XD Cam system, we learned, is a powerful new player in the high definition broadcasting market. Each XD disk-cartridge holds 100 minutes of high definition footagein 16×9 aspect ratio. Further, the decks allowed our tape operators like Chris, Fernando, and Frank to scan through or segregate various clips and time codes via a touch-screen interface with automatic thumbnail previews of the content on the disk.

These decks were hardly used to their full potential during the Olympic games in Beijing. They apparently are in the process of creating a network based editing ability that will allow each of these decks to serve as drives on a phantom computer and for their content to be edited from anywhere. All we used the decks for was to record raw and reference content from various feeds or outputs (respectively). Editors or producers would later have to check the tapes out of the library to work with them.

image007As Loggers we watched the raw and reference footage that filtered through the seemingly infinite channels and into the Central Tape room from all around the Olympic studios and venues. We wrote play-by-play and shot-by-shot logs in a brand new program called OPIS, the Olympic Programming Information System. A version of this program was written and created by our training supervisor Michael Jackson specifically for the Olympics 12 years ago, and he had created a new version for Beijing.

Oftentimes Michael would ask us, at our next opportunity, to restart our laptops so that the OPIS program could update. He was literally improving and rewriting the program while we were working with it! One early day I noted to him that the spell checker would often take quite a long time at the end of our shifts. It did so because of all the names and country codes that the dictionary failed to recognize. I suggested that he tell the spell checker program to ignore all words in our hot-keys (pre-programmed words or phrases we used, often to keep lists of team rosters for easy input to our logs). Two days later, after an update, the program had been changed to do just that. Michael told me he was surprised that he, and no previous loggers, had ever thought of that improvement before.

If the Loggers and their laptops were in the middle of our half of Central Tape, and the wall of XD Cam decks was the front, than the feed control station was the back. Tom, Mike, and a few others ran the feed control computers that routed data from numerous sources to a number of destinations. However this year’s innovation was that they were also feeding video to the Internet. They had control of when feeds were streamed from various venues to the Internet for viewers on nbcolympics.com. This new service allowed more of the Olympic events to be seen live than ever before, and they stopped and started the service when we loggers noticed new footage playing on our monitors.

image009Beyond the technological side of things, Loggers also had the privilege of working fewer hours each day than Runners. This allowed us to make up for the fact that we had fewer days in Beijing to sightsee, because almost every day’s work allowed for an opportunity to get out of the Olympic zones. Since our work was limited to the times during which our assigned sport was being played, and that was rarely more than 6 hours each day, we had plenty of waking hours remaining to explore all that the city – and our all-access press-passes – had to offer.

My travels took me on every subway line in the city, all for free thanks to the press-pass. We went to indoor and outdoor markets, saw ancient temples, and spent more than one day hiking through palace grounds. For just a little bit of money, the equivalent of $65, we had a custom tour of the Great Wall.

The Great Wall trip was an interesting case study in both ancient and modern China. Obviously the wall itself is steeped in history, and while we hiked it we were certainly cognizant of that fact. In such a beautiful place we were walking along a massive fortification of war. Even more shocking than that dichotomy was the commercialization of the Wall and its surrounding area. Of course there were rows of merchants at the base of the hill below the Wall, but there was also a cable car system to take you up an amusement park toboggan ride to take you down.

image011The surprise was not just the fact that so many people from around the world were able to stroll into this ancient wartime fortification, but also the fact that so many descendents of its beneficiaries were there to turn it into a business. Even the government got into the action. Our tour guide took us to a jade and pottery factory owned and run by the government. The prices were far higher than any other vendors we had encountered, and yet the laborers made only about 100 RMB per week. To us, that was sweatshop labor, and yet many of us bought products anyway.

image013On a different, and much more pure, excursion to a landmark we encountered tradition the way it was meant to be. We rode the subway to the Lama Temple, a working Buddhist temple, near the heart of the city. We saw local believers actively praying and placing offerings of incense outside the various pagodas. It would be the only time in my experience that I witnessed any religious affiliation practiced, although many landmarks referenced Buddhist histories.

After our time at the Lama Temple we wandered out toward the subway and found a large crowd of people and Olympic volunteers. It was time to see what privilege our press-pass would give us. We pulled them out, and put our cameras in our hands, and were immediately asked to follow a woman in the blue volunteer jersey. She brought us to the front of the crowd and gave us a pristine view of an empty street. After a few minutes of guessing what we were waiting for, a solitary pair of bicyclists rolled by. Next thing we knew, a pack of hundreds. I had just seen my first Olympic event by total mistake – the men’s bicycle road race from Tiananmen Square to the Great Wall.

In later days I would also attend Track and Field, which included the Men’s 100-Meter finals in the Bird’s Nest, and some Gymnastics individual apparatus finals. Tickets to the Gymnastics were generously given to two other loggers and myself by Rob Landau (NBC Olympics Human Resources) in recognition of our hard work. A friend and former boss from KVOA in Tucson, Arizona gave me the ticket to the Bird’s Nest, one of my most treasured experiences. Together Josh Fang, KVOA’s Lead Editor, and I saw Jamaica’s Usain Bolt break and destroy the previous 100-Meter world record to become the fastest man alive. I am sure that will be the most impressive athletic showing that I will ever be present to see firsthand.

image015Getting back to the International Broadcast Center after my mornings around town was laughably blasé. We were walking into the largest and most active broadcast center ever – and we did it without a question or second thought. The technological and organizational prowess was incredible, and we hardly realized it.

Beijing Olympic Broadcasting, or BOB, was a company established solely for the Beijing Games. They brought in vendors, crews, and specialists from around the world to be the host broadcasters for every venue and event during the Olympics. BOB had a fleet of helicopters, dozens of specialty cameras, and thousands of people. At the end of the games all the equipment was shut down and the company went mysteriously bankrupt. Just as mysteriously, a brand new company, Vancouver Olympic Broadcasting, popped up in Canada and acquired all BOB equipment that wasn’t rented. This ingenious process repeated itself over and over, Olympics after Olympics.

In the center of the first floor of the IBC was BOB Tech, the nerve center of the Olympic Broadcasting endeavor. Through this room passed the feeds from every venue to be distributed, as well as every signal going home. This room made the NBC counterpart, Central Tape, look diminutive. The amount of money spent by NBC was huge, 150 million on equipment and approximately 50 million on personnel. Yet NBC didn’t even handle most of the broadcasting – they were members of BOB and retransmitted their feeds. Viewers here in America probably had no idea this was the method in use, or that NBC had spent all that money to do only a small portion of the broadcasting job.

As interns in China and working in the IBC we quickly realized the scale of the money and effort that must have been spent on the whole BOB system. Every day our work as Loggers had us watch one or more feeds from the BOB system. The production quality was nearly impeccable. In the sport I was primarily responsible for, rowing, the sequences of shots showed the course from all possible angles making the job of writing play-by-play very easy.

I was assigned rowing because I had been a rower in high school and freshman year of college. No other interns had any experience with that sport. Unlike basketball or volleyball, sports we all shared due to their popularity, I was the only logger to work on rowing. From my station, I watched and wrote about every single race, from preliminaries through repechages to the finals. After the first few races it became very clear that the director had a well-established pattern of cameras to follow the boats down the two thousand meter course. In short order I learned to do more than just note which angles were being used, I was able to simultaneously call the race in my notes. I had pre-arranged hot-keys for the camera angles that I had learned and was able to talk about the rowing quality and events during the race. I hope that this made my notes useful for the editors who would later select races or highlights for air.

image019In all of the Olympic coverage, I saw very few rowing highlights. This is understandable because of the sport’s lack of popularity. However, one event I worked that had highlights galore was the women’s beach volleyball finals. I worked this event because the primary logger had gotten tickets to the event and since rowing had ended, I was free to cover various sports. After Walsh and May-Treanor won their gold medals to sweep their second Olympics, they celebrated considerably down on the sand. I logged these with the term pre-programmed for shots or events worthy of special consideration, “Money shots,” and was later gratified to see them used in the game’s highlights and the day’s summation.

Other sports that I worked were basketball, wrestling, and synchronized swimming. The only things that I logged, that we all took turns logging, were reference records. These daytime or late night broadcasts would be playing just five seconds later in the United States. five seconds later because it gave internal censors time to bleep or cut away from any content that would be inappropriate in the United States. To the best of my knowledge, this pad time was never tested, but given the live nature of the event, it was a necessary precaution.

image017Watching reference records was particularly useful to me in helping prepare myself for a new job I have this semester at school: as director of a public affairs television program. Writing play-by-play and shot-by-shot logs for a studio-based broadcast was a lot like reverse engineering the show’s rundown. I did the reverse of what the director did in calling for shots. I recorded them. Thinking this way was a huge learning experience and warmed me up to the position by giving me ample time to study these broadcasts.

The quality of the productions NBC crafted to glue together BOB’s feeds was nearly flawless. On occasion we in Central Tape would catch an anchor or announcer botch a name or mistake one location for another, but rarely. (For example, there was a building near the Olympic Green called the Pan Gu Plaza that was designed to look like a dragon but the Track and Field announcer insisted it was meant to look like the Olympic torch.) The video and camera takes were all clean and the bar for overall production was set quite high. Only once did a product nearly fail to meet that standard.

I cannot independently verify the truth of the anecdote I am about to write here, but I do believe it to be true. Only once did the BOB product fall short of NBC’s expectations – and that was during the closing ceremony. Watching it live in our media village room we saw a number of botched camera takes that were a product of poor directing. Apparently those shots never aired in the USA. Dick Ebersol apparently saw those shots from his private suite in the IBC and called to Central Tape over the intercom. He supposedly said he would shoot them if they did not edit and fix the tapes before they aired in the USA. He kept the tape operator and editor staff working overnight to repair the video of the ceremonies. After working all night, Ebersol was there to personally thank and congratulate them in the morning.

Pressure was high in this internship. An unbelievable amount of money was at stake for NBC Universal, not to mention its reputation. They put themselves on the line to devote so much to televising these games, and it paid off beautifully. image021Near the end of the games, a poster appeared on the wall that read: “Over 200 Million Americans experienced Olympic glory. Thank you to the viewers, NBC affiliates, cable affiliates, advertisers and most of all – the athletes. Now get some rest. Only 536 days to Vancouver.”

It should suffice to say, I deeply desire to go to Vancouver. The words on that poster attest to the magnitude of the work we completed in Beijing, and that is a huge source of pride for all of us. However, it is also a selfish desire to go to Vancouver. The Olympics was an incredibly fun experience. Beijing was an incredible city and all of its doors were open to us in an unprecedented way. Even work was hardly worthy of its name. It was a sport’s fans dream; to watch the worlds best compete live and in person, without commercials and for a large part without announcers. Viewing the Olympics from the Central Tape room is an unparalleled experience.

Every sport was playing simultaneously on monitors throughout central tape, but with just the word of an intern, “hey check out the sport on monitor…” a tape operator would dial the event up to the big screen. The whole room could stop for time that was not measured in minutes or seconds, but rather in gold, silver, and bronze. For fleeting moments, every sport was our favorite, and we treated athletes from any part of the world with awe. The Russian pole-vaulter, Yelena Isinbayeva, was one of those characters. In our normal lives none of us are fans of pole-vaulting, but when she was crashing through the world records we were standing and cheering. The same was also true for Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, the Redeem Team, the volleyball teams, and so many others.image023

To have been at the Beijing Olympics, to have watched every event live, and to even attend some, was a huge honor. The learning experience was valuable, but the life experience will never be matched.