Between Olympic soccer matches, NBC analyst Marcelo Balboa fields texts and emails from friends who ask him, ”How’s London?”
He wouldn’t know. The three-time World Cup participant turned sportscaster is one of many at NBC covering the Olympics from a cubby equipped with a television monitor in New York, one of a warren of them lined up in the studio where ”Saturday Night Live” usually originates. NBC has a team of 650 people working on London Olympics coverage from New York.
Outside of the soundproof booth’s closed door, you wouldn’t be able to hear Balboa if he shouted, ”goooaaallll!” That’s so as not to disturb Jason Knapp and Rich McKinney, calling an archery match from a different booth a few steps away.
A row of desks and computer monitors is the operations center for all of the video streams of competition that NBC offers on its Olympics website. An intern from Elon University edits footage for a stream dedicated to weightlifting.
In the seats where the ”Saturday Night Live” audience usually sits, another crew is responsible for inserting commercials into the various video streams.
John McGuinness leafs through a sheaf of papers behind a desk in a control room, within sight of dozens of monitors providing video feeds of different sports taking place simultaneously across the Atlantic. The papers are a schedule of the day’s events as they are due to be shown on NBC, the NBC Sports cable network, MSNBC, CNBC, Bravo and Telemundo.
While McGuinness, coordinating producer of NBC Olympics at Home, is allowed some flexibility to move things around, ”you can’t do this without a detailed schedule,” he said.
McGuinness essentially coordinates the hours of coverage, many of them live, shown during the daytime on the various networks. He’s in before 4 a.m. when competition is beginning in London and escapes to a nearby hotel for a couple of hours of sleep when NBC’s prime-time telecast is on.
The New York operations center, used in past games but expanded for London, is set up to save money but also because there are limits to how many credentials NBC can get to operate in London.
While NBC hosts Bob Costas, Al Michaels and Dan Patrick work from studios in London, there’s a separate studio down the hall from ”SNL” where Kelly Tilghman sits. She’s the host of MSNBC’s daytime coverage.
Similarly, the announcers for swimming, gymnastics and basketball work at arenas in London but for many of the less popular sports like wrestling, team handball, badminton, field hockey, fencing, archery and shooting the work is done out of New York.
The announcing team works in one part of each cubby, with a producer and, perhaps, an assistant in the other half. They keep contact with the venue in London in case there are questions that need answering.
”If it happens away from the ball, that’s the toughest thing,” McGuinness said. ”Unless they show a replay of something, that could be the hardest to cover.”
Balboa was in Athens covering soccer for NBC in 2004, and in Beijing in 2008. With the U.S. men’s team not qualifying for the games, NBC bet on less interest in the tournament. Balboa has had experience calling some professional soccer games remotely from Colorado. It’s not ideal, but before high definition he’d sometime have trouble catching the players’ numbers. That’s no worry now.
He misses most the opportunity to see the whole field and feel a crowd’s energy. The former player in him would like a better chance to see how a play is developing, yet he’s at the mercy of the video feeds. He also resists speculating on injuries when all he has is a camera view, waiting for an official report if a player goes down.
If he were in England, he’d only be able to do one game a day with matches spread across different locations. In New York, he calls a couple of games a day.
”We get to see a lot of the teams before the first round is over,” he said. ”That’s a huge advantage.”
In calling archery, McKinney misses most not being able to tell how hard the wind is blowing, and in what direction. He watches for flags on the television monitor to give him clues about the conditions the athletes are facing. As a four-time Olympian with two silver medals, McKinney calls on his experience: being able to see a competitor’s eyes gives him clues about what they are thinking.
During a recent telecast, McKinney described how the archers compensate for the wind by aiming just off the target depending on the direction it is blowing.
McGuinness said the New York-based on-air personnel don’t try to pretend they are in London when they aren’t. In Tilghman’s studio, the backdrop is a New York skyline.