Monday, August 13, 2012

The Olympics -- NBC's production and direction

The Olympics were brought to us by two organizations -- YouTube and NBC. YouTube ran the network, and their task was to deliver smooth, high-resolution video streams. NBC handled content production and direction, using video feeds supplied by Olympic Broadcasting Services, OBS. Most of my posts to this point have focused on the former -- the network. How about direction and production?

While some of the content was good, there were significant gaps.

For example, a cycling road race is a difficult event to cover -- it is spread over a large area, the action is continuous and the cyclists break into groups. NBC streamed the video of this and many other events without commentary and with relatively few on-screen graphics. While that may be satisfactory for an event like volleyball or weight lifting, one tends to get lost in a cycling road race.

The camera might be focused on a single group of riders, but, who is in the group, are some of the race favorites or top sprinters in the group and where us the group relative to the rest of the field? Commentators and graphics like NBC used in their coverage of the Tour de France provide that context. (I spent less time watching the BBC's live coverage, but all the streams I saw had live commentators).

Extended tree-obstructed shots like the one shown below are evidence of loose direction. I do not know whether NBC had the ability to switch cameras or they only got one video feed from OBS, but someone should be watching and switch cameras when the view is obstructed or there is something else of more interest to show. Ideally, the person switching cameras would also be in communication with the commentators.

Cuts to commercials at arbitrary points in the action were also evidence of loose direction. Furthermore, seeing a commercial on a TV set is not the same as seeing it on a laptop screen. We subconsciously expect commercials on TV and the transitions are fast, but on the Web they are jarring. You think something is wrong at first when the screen goes black during the transition to a commercial.

NBC's Tour de France video was superior to that of their Olympic video, but that was to be expected. The Tour de France video feed was supplied by France television, working with Euro media France (EMF). France TV and EMF have years of experience, while Beijing was the first Olympics for OBS. They also had only one event to cover, so needed only one set of experts and commentators. Finally, since the coverage was pay-per-view, they did not have to deal with timing of and transition to commercials.

There were also production problems with respect to the Web site -- broken links like the one shown below, slow response, poor user interface design, screen blackouts during transitions to commercials and so forth. (The slow Web site response time is a shared problem between the Web site design team and the networking team from YouTube).

I don't mean to beat up on NBC -- covering 302 events in 32 sports is a huge task, and I am sure they learned a lot about how to produce live events during the Olympics. They even made some mid-stream adjustments like changing the user interface on the live stream menu and perhaps adding more commentators near the end of the games. I cannot be sure of the latter, but it seemed like after the first week or so I found fewer live events without commentary, and the commentators often had English accents.

As video coverage of live events moves online, the production experience NBC and OBS gained at the Olympics and the Tour de France, will serve them well.


You will find a description of EMF's operation during the Tour de France here.

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