The “Friends & Family” programming allowed for emotional moments, like when the loved ones of U.S. swimmer Caeleb Dressel were able to travel to Orlando to watch him win gold in Tokyo.getty images
Inside NBC’s operations area at the International Broadcasting Center, on Tokyo Bay, posters lined the walls from the 16 previous Olympics the network has aired, starting with Tokyo in 1964. The signatures of more than a dozen athletes were displayed on a glass panel inside the main studio, including that of new skateboarding analyst Tony Hawk.
And former U.S. Olympians might be found sharing a break room with staffers or wandering the halls between tapings. Indeed, having the likes of Vince Carter and Laurie Hernandez, who won gold medals with the U.S. men’s basketball team in 2000 and the women’s gymnastics team in 2016, respectively, around the building only added to the sense that the Tokyo Olympics — and, notably, NBC’s production of them — were a logistical marvel.
“It’s going extraordinarily well operationally,” said Gary Zenkel, NBC president of Olympics and business, at the midpoint of the Games. “I don’t think an Olympic city was as well-prepared for the Olympic system to hit it as this city was. That makes our life a lot easier.”
The network needed all the help it could get. NBC’s Tokyo operations required detailed planning across 30 months and the delivery of more than 80 shipping containers and nearly 60 tons of air freighted equipment and supplies. Much of that equipment had to be deployed twice because of the one-year postponement, and it will soon make a direct, 1,300-mile trip to Beijing for the 2022 Winter Games.
NBC, which has a $7.75 billion deal in place to broadcast the Games in the U.S. through 2032, aired a record 7,000 hours of the Tokyo Olympics. Even after moving about one-fifth of its planned headcount from Tokyo to remote locations, it still had some 1,600 staffers on the ground in Japan. The main hub in the host city connected to 322 total circuits, with incoming lines from competition venues and outgoing feeds to destinations including NBC’s broadcast center in Stamford, Conn.; 30 Rock in New York City; and hubs in London; Miami; Englewood Cliffs, N.J.; and Dry Creek, Colo.
According to Darryl Jefferson, NBC’s vice president of broadcast operations and technology, the total circuit count was increased by about 60 to 70 feeds over the Rio Games due to additional hours of coverage and new shows on NBC’s digital platforms.
By the numbers
16.8 million: Average prime-time viewership for competition nights through Aug. 1
27.5 million: Average prime-time viewership for competition nights
41 million: Hours of Olympics content streamed on NBC channels through July 31, up 15%
1.1 million: Followers for @NBCOlympics on Twitter, the Games’ most-mentioned handle
Racks of broadcast equipment, which managed distribution, encoding, recording and other tasks, were built in the United States and designed specifically not just for the Tokyo floorspace, but also to fit snugly in a shipping container. “We taped out the dimensions of this room in our integration facility, so we know what length to cut the cables, the dimension and size of the rooms, and so on,” said Jefferson. “This is a pre-designed, pre-thought out, pre-planned thing meant for speed.”
NBC first shipped its broadcast equipment to Tokyo last year, but it was later returned to the U.S. following the postponement; the repeated shipping costs were still less than the cost of a full year of storage in Japan. Equipment was then reconfigured and redeployed earlier this year. “We quickly realized that we’ve never attempted this level of coverage or complexity,” said Jefferson. “So we had to make sure we were prepared to do everything we were going to do for Beijing and try to think through two Games at once.”
The broadcast itself was also full of new features, the most successful being “Friends & Family” programming, which delivered some of the most memorable highlights of the Games, from U.S. swimmer Caeleb Dressel crying with his family after winning the 100-meter freestyle, to an auditorium of Alaskans cheering on 100-meter breaststroke gold medalist Lydia Jacoby.
NBC had more than 1,600 staffers on the ground in Japan to help air 7,000 hours of coverage.Courtesy of NBC
Those moments were made possible by the last-minute deployment of cameras to homes around the world and a partnership with the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee to fly friends and family members to a massive watch party at Universal Orlando, providing a stand-in for the fans prohibited at competition venues. That programming had dedicated control rooms in both Tokyo and Stamford.
“In almost every show now, you see the athletes’ friends and family going crazy, or more tender exchanges, because we positioned cameras, because we planned in a hurry how to fill the gap between the fans that we expected to be there and that enthusiasm,” said Jefferson. “The result is that we see something the American public has never seen.”
Also new this year were technical upgrades. The broadcast featured high-dynamic range, which offers a more lifelike picture, and Atmos audio provided the possibility of three-dimensional surround sound. Few viewers actually own the technology required to experience those upgrades, but the network is betting that wider adoption is on the way and is aiming to be ahead of the curve.
For all the advancements, most of the attention paid to NBC has been focused on declining viewership numbers (see chart), though it still dominated the other networks each night and has posted major digital gains. Some nightly broadcasts more than tripled the competing figures on ABC, CBS and Fox combined.
NBC won’t have to wait long to put all of its innovations — and ratings — to the biggest test possible. Just six months from now, the network will broadcast both the Winter Olympics in Beijing and the Super Bowl on the same weekend.