Sunday, August 14th, 2016

Take a trip inside NBC’s Olympics highlights factory

A timely example of how American manufacturing is getting more sophisticated: NBC’s Olympic highlights factory.

NBC still doesn’t use robots on that assembly line. But, for its Rio coverage, NBC has stepped up its quality control in hopes its highlights come out with the best parts possible.

The highlights factory is based in NBC Sports Group headquarters in Stamford, CT, where 1,000-plus works are staying in sync with the 2,000-plus workers that NBC has deployed on-site in Brazil.

It’s a windowless room where dozens of staffers hunch over computers, with a wall covered by a mural of Rio being the only obvious evidence of what’s being processed.

What’s happening is that the Olympics’ world TV feed – which includes every second of competition – is being broken-down into highlights that could be used anywhere on NBC’s Rio 2016 coverage or easily resurrected for any future Olympic programming.

Highlight factories are essential in TV sports, where things such as the sprawling smorgasbords of Saturday afternoon college football or weeknight baseball get boiled down to small doses of video that are worth replaying.

But, in one of the many oddities of Olympic TV, it isn’t easy finding factory workers who can instantly recognize an unusual or telling moment in, say, Olympic weightlifting or rowing.

Eric Hamilton who as co-director of NBC’s Olympic digital video production along with Brian Gilmore, serves as a de facto shop steward on the assembly line. And for Rio, he says, NBC looked for more than “overall sportiness” for the workforce, which includes plenty of college undergrads, who would harvest Olympic highlights. “The big difference with this Olympics is we were looking for interns to have something beyond some general broadcast background.”

Because, obviously, even a pretty knowledgeable general sports fan might not know what to look for when it comes to weightlifting grips.

But Jade McCrary does. Now a senior at Florida A&M, she won individual and team titles as a 116-pound high school weightlifter in Port Orange, FL. She says a heart condition prompted her to give up lifting. But the economics major, who heard about the NBC Olympic gig after NBC contacted her school’s journalism department, still has keen eyes and notices whether a lifter is using, say, a “hook grip” as well as what’s going on in warmups: “They do things like sniff ammonia or slap their muscles.”

These highlight cutters have secondary sports they work on, but their focus is on the ones in which they’ve actually competed. Like Will Raynor, a fifth-year senior at Michigan who’s majoring in Screen Arts and Cultures – saying that’s “really film and TV.” He’s also on the swim team, meaning he’s had teammates who became Olympians.

He heard about the Olympic highlights job when Gary Zenkel, a former Michigan golfer who is now President of NBC Olympics, dropped by his alma mater for a meet-and-greet with UM athletes.

Raynor says that while swimming is obviously “cut and dried” in who gets what times, it also helps to know some backstory in picking out highlights. Like, for instance, who strategically decided to make a fast start. In that case, “if you don’t know the sport you might just think it’s a guy swimming fast.”

Well, yes, and you probably wouldn’t be able to guess what would happen as a result. Ethan Genyk, a junior rower at the University of Pennsylvania, says he can spot when a rower “goes out too hard and is hurting, meaning 500 meters from now they probably won’t be in the lead.”

Genyk heard about the highlights job from an email to Penn from NBC’s Hamilton, who was a Penn rower himself. While Genyk is enjoying the Olympic job, the romance language major doesn’t see media work “in my career plans.”

Caleb Richardson, who was ranked as high as fourth nationally while a high schooler in Virginia Beach, VA and is now a wrestler at Penn who has been ranked as high as 14th in NCAA Division I, is a Health and Society major. He says “knowing the history behind guys, and recognizing their styles” helps him figure out when something is unusual – and highlight-worthy.

This taste of TV sports leads many of the factory’s workers to have become more interested in pursuing sports media. Like Holly Resh, a senior on UC-San Diego’s cycling team and whose parents have both been pro cyclists.

The senior communications major says the NBC Rio stint has left her more enthusiastic about going into the business. But, she says, “The hours were long.”

Youngster, welcome to the real world. Well, at least a real world where your job is to watch the Olympics and pick out what’s really interesting.