Yesterday I posted about how Limelight Networks was used as the primary caching content provider for NBCOlympics.com and lifted a huge burden off on the public Internet by leveraging relationships with last mile ISPs. It's an amazing story about how technology can be used to solve immense problems.
But what many people don't know about is another Olympics technology story --- not how video streaming was made possible to NBC's Internet audience on NBCOlympics.com, but about how NBC had to solve a number of its own problems when tackling the Olympics from a broadcast perspective. In this example, technology was employed in such a risky, innovative way, that had it failed, it would have been disastrous for both NBC and the company that made it happen for them --- CISCO.
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The 2008 Beijing Summer Games presented a number of challenges for NBC.
First, NBC had to consider the huge cost of moving large amounts of employees overseas to cover the events from a media standpoint and also orchestrate all the back end logistics to pull off the production and two weeks of coverage from an organizational standpoint. NBC and other broadcast networks had covered Olympics in the past, but moving large amounts of people to crew cameras, lighting, edit, support operations, etc, in addition to the required media personalities to China given today's economic challenges would have had a huge financial impact on the company. Travel, Housing and food costs, not to mention the environmental impact would be significant. Therefore, NBC made the very gutsy choice to have all broadcast shot selection and video editing done in the United States, with efforts shared between NBC Studios in Los Angeles and NBC Headquarters in 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City.
From a traditional broadcast standpoint, all the camera feeds would then need to be beamed off a satellite and sent to the United States. In previous Olympics, staff had to work from videotapes to add graphics and captions to event shots. But during a 17-day event, it was not going to be feasible for a tape library to dub off enough video copies for eight different networks as well as NBCOlympics.com.
The limitations of a tape library with such a massive international event was not even the tip of the iceberg in terms of technical challenges that had to be overcome. At any given time, there are more than 40 camera crews in China covering 40 simultaneous events or stories, each with a compliment of six to a dozen cameras each. Given that NBC now shoots in uncompressed HD video, where a single hour of footage equals approximately 35 gigabytes of data, the amount of satellite time that would needed to have been purchased to send these entire unedited camera feeds to the US would have been astronomical in terms of cost. Similarly, sending the all off the HDTV camera feeds over trans-continental optical carrier would have been just or more expensive.
To solve these problems, NBC consulted CISCO, who came up with an innovative solution -- Scientific Atlanta video encoding appliances in China would digitize and ingest high-definition (HD) and standard-definition (SD) feeds and simultaneously create high-res and low-res proxy files of all recordings. The files would be transferred while they were still being recorded to an active storage system in Beijing's International Broadcast Centre. From there, only the low-res proxy files would be transferred over the CISCO 12000-based network using optical carrier to two other active storage systems in New York and Los Angeles. There, shot selectors would edit the low-res files, and the resulting Edit Decision Lists would be sent back to Beijing to request the desired SD and HD video for final production editing. By only transferring the high-resolution footage that it actually intended to broadcast, NBC could conserve considerable network bandwidth.
This CISCO-developed solution saved NBC enormous amounts of money. In fact, according to sources close to the company, we were told that less than a single OC-12 of trans-continental aggregate bandwidth was required for EVERYTHING sent back from China -- HD (1080i) video, SD (480i) video as well as VOIP communication, scoring telemetry and all other IT related data needed by NBC in order to function during the games.
And while Packet Shaping was not a factor stateside with NBCOlympics.com for its Internet streaming video viewers, it was definitely an issue for NBC itself internally. CISCO set Quality of Service rules into its 12000 series routers and its WAAS WAN optimization platform to assign priority to real-time video footage and compress data. As all trans-ocean network traffic shared the same pipes, video of the Olympic Games would need higher priority than, say, event scores.
Will NBC's remote shot selection and remote editing technology designed by CISCO become the de-facto way of covering live sporting events in the future, or will such methods only be employed in rare situations such as this? Talk back and let me know.