NBC 'highlights factory' covers Olympics from New York

At the converted "Saturday Night Live" studio in New York, NBCUniversal employees create Olympics highlight clips and call competition in sports such as badminton, archery, and handball.
At the converted "Saturday Night Live" studio in New York, NBCUniversal employees create Olympics highlight clips and call competition in sports such as badminton, archery, and handball. (VIRGINIA SHERWOOD / NBC)
Posted: August 02, 2012

NEW YORK - On Monday, sometime around noon, Australian women's basketball player Belinda Snell sank a three-point half-court shot at the buzzer, sending the Aussie team's Olympic game against France into overtime.

That was in London.

Three thousand miles away, in a studio at NBC head- quarters, an "aaahhhhh" punctuated the hushed quiet and play-by-play caller Dave Strader, in a soundproof black booth that looked like a high-tech Porta-Potty, shouted to American viewers, "Are you kidding me?"

Within hours, the clip of the half-court shot was digitally packaged into a "highlight" for download to millions of cable set-top boxes or accessed on the www.nbcolympics.com website, bearing the headline, "Miraculous 3-pointer by the Aussies."

NBC's plan to make available 5,535 hours of Olympics coverage on multiple platforms is unprecedented. To manage this torrent of video streams into American households, the Comcast Corp.-owned NBCUniversal entertainment and news conglomerate has staffed not only broadcast booths and studios in London, but a temporary 670-employee center in New York dubbed the "highlights factory."

In the Saturday Night Live studio made famous by Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, and Tina Fey, NBC has crammed 11 portable play-by-play booths, a control room, and 50 flat-screen computer workstations.

"It's all hands on deck over the 17 days," Rick Cordella, the senior vice president of digital media at the NBC Sports Group, said Tuesday in a phone interview from London.

Not only do his 125 employees clip highlights on their workstations on the SNL stage and in the balcony seating area, but they manually insert advertisements into the live stream on nbcolympics.com.

Unlike prime time, there are no natural breaks for ads in a live stream. Employees have to insert 15-second commercial breaks into the action.

Disaster could strike quickly and unexpectedly in the form of a lost Olympics video feed, or even an errant horse. There seemed on Monday to be a conscious effort to keep everyone calm at 30 Rock. The tension was high, but the lights were low. Voices murmured soothingly.

John McGuinness, a coordinating producer of NBC's Olympics coverage, monitored a futuristic-looking bank of video screens. "I can't imagine anybody not getting their fill of Olympics this year," he said.

On the screens were four NBC-owned TV channels - Bravo, MSNBC, the NBC Sports Network, and the NBC broadcast-TV network - airing Olympic sports.

McGuinness pulled out a binder. This was his programming bible for the day, a detailed list of events and when they would be aired. Everything was planned - except the unplanned. Earlier in the day, a horse in an equestrian competition had run off, leaving about 20 minutes of dead air on the NBC Sports Network.

"It's nuts," said McGuinness, who is working between 2 a.m. and 8 p.m. and sleeping in a hotel.

The big games and competitions are being called from London. But the smaller competitions - badminton, archery, handball, and others - are being called at 30 Rock. There are 32 Olympic sports.

"We say at the beginning of each game, we're calling this game from New York, so we're not faking people out," said McGuinness.

He walked to an anchor desk used for Football Night in America in the fall and winter, when NBC broadcasts Sunday night football games. Kelly Tilghman of the Golf Channel was preparing to anchor the Olympics coverage on the MSNBC cable channel. "We're not pretending we are in London because we have a big picture of 30 Rock behind her," McGuinness observed.

There was a whiteboard in the hallway leading to the portable play-by-play booths. The booths were numbered and the numbers corresponded to rows on the whiteboard. The board showed what games would be called in that booth and when.

The booths were black and enclosed by four walls, a roof, and a door. There were little windows to look inside.

To staff the booths, NBC had to find experts in the individual sports that weren't typically televised. In one of the portable broadcast booths, Mike Corey and Missy Meharg were preparing for a women's field hockey game between Britain and Germany. Corey calls games for ESPN and Meharg is the head women's field hockey coach at the University of Maryland.

Everyone these days, it seems, is a sports expert at NBC. When she heard the "aaahhhhh" and saw Snell's three-pointer, NBC manager Roe Castagna blurted, "That's going to be a highlight."

Contact Bob Fernandez at 215-854-5897 or bob.fernandez@phillynews.com.

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