NBC Chases Digital Gold

With the help of storage systems from Isilon and Avid, NBC goes completely digital in Athens

August 20, 2004

3 Min Read
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Along with all the records it will broadcast from the Olympics over the next few weeks, NBC is setting one of its own. Thanks to storage systems from Isilon Systemsand Avid Technology Inc. (Nasdaq: AVID), the networks editors and producers are making the Athens Olympics the first to be shot completely in digital video.

The systems are part of an overall process NBC uses to digitize, edit, and index the content of the Olympic games. Digital content allows producers to review and select footage more quickly, but also gives NBC a lot more video to store.

“In the past almost everything was on videotape," says Matt Adams, director of technology for NBC Olympics. “The storage requirements for digital video are large. We believe this is the most ambitious live-event digitization effort ever.”

Is that an Olympian overstatement? Perhaps not. Using digital content for TV and motion pictures isn't new, but few broadcast events are on the scale of the Olympics (see Storage Vendors Watch Video). The 17-day Olympic TV coverage consists of 1,210 hours of digital content, shot at 38 sites, broadcast over six NBC-owned networks, including Bravo, CNBC, MSNBC, Telemundo, and USA Network. About one-third of those hours will be stored in high-definition format, which uses files from five to ten times the size of standard broadcast video. So the undertaking is clearly ambitious.

But it might be a stretch to call the Olympics a "live event," at least from a TV perspective. In case you haven’t caught on, none of NBC’s weeknight primetime coverage is live. Athens is seven hours ahead of EDT, and none of that running, diving, and pommel horsing is going on at four in the morning New York time.That means NBC film editors and producers have to go through around 70 hours of content per day to put together the evening broadcast. Adams says Isilon’s system gives editors about a three-hour jump over tape video review systems. In the past, the process involved significant duplication of tapes and use of manual log books to store and track the footage.

“Having it on disk allows us to retrieve it instantly,” Adams says. “The producers are able to make their selection immediately.”

Isilon is an Olympics rookie, but its clustered storage systems are developed specifically to handle large files associated with digital content (see Isilon Adds Media Customers, ABC Likes Isilon's IQ, Isilon Intros Clustered Storage Systems, and Isilon Ices Cool $15.5M). Adams says he was sold on Isilon’s appliance nature and ability to store 4 GBytes in cache. “With the cache, we could grow storage as we needed it rather than having to guess,” he says.

NBC uses three Isilon IQ 2250 clusters of 11-Tbytes each. One cluster sits in the the International Broadcast Center (IBC) and is used to encode and store video into a lower-resolution 1.5-Mbit/s format. The two other Isilon IQ clusters are located on-site at the track and field and gymnastic venues. Editors meta-tag and index the video on a Blue Order Media Archive asset management system connected to each Isilon IQ cluster.

The systems at the venues store the video in slow motion. Producers, editors, and reporters can search for a clip by event, athlete, or day. After reviewing the clips, they forward the edit-decision list to another group of editors working on Avid systems.NBC had used Avid editing systems for the previous two Olympics, but added Avid Unity MediaNetwork shared storage systems this time around. The Unity MediaNetwork system can handle 8 Tbytes of storage. Edit stations in the IBC graphics center store digital video, so all other Avid workstations inside the IBC can access the footage from any Olympic event. NBC also uses ten Avid MediaComposer Adrenaline editing systems in the IBC, and nine more at the venues.

— Dave Raffo, Senior Editor, Byte and Switch

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