Q&A With Gary Zenkel, President of NBC Olympics

Gary Zenkel, who also serves as President of Operations & Strategy of NBC Sports Group, offered a behind-the-scenes look at the NBC Olympics team, on the ground in Rio, and at NBC Sports headquarters in Stamford, CT.

Q: It seems like the Olympics cycle never stops. What have you been up to since the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics?

Gary: We’ve been figuring out how to unlock content for audiences that are more and more difficult to reach, because they spend a lot of time on platforms that we don’t necessarily own. So what we decided to do coming out of Sochi, as we saw the social media landscape begin to deliver a lot of its experience around video, is unlock some of the video that we had always confined to NBC-controlled platforms. We’ve pushed it out to social media partners like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat and BuzzFeed. We’re excited about what that may yield in terms of driving more and more conversation.

Q: The Olympics seem unprecedented as a testing grounds for how audiences view content. Is there any other event or project that compares to the Olympics?

Gary: No, there’s nothing like the Olympics. There’s the Super Bowl, which requires an amazing amount of deployed equipment and personnel. But it’s a single broadcast for a single athletic competition. There’s the World Cup, which happens over the course of a month with broadcasters from around the world. But again, it’s a single venue. We will deploy close to 3,000 people in Rio. About 2,600 of those will travel from the States, and a few from other places. We’ll hire about 500 or so locals to support our effort down there. We’ll move about 43,000 pieces of equipment. And we’ll move about 110 shipping containers. Nothing compares to the Olympics, with its 10,000 athletes.

Q: Can you describe the teams and technology working behind the scenes?

Gary: We’ll have about 1,100 people that will function in our Stamford facility, up from the 600 we usually have working across our sports properties. We have [four] active control rooms. And we’ll pull up two mobile units to our loading dock to handle all of the capacity we’re taking on. That includes some of our cable studios and a couple of the specialty channels we launch. And we do a tremendous amount of our digital production out of this building, including a couple of original programs that are dedicated just to the digital platforms. We have a news desk that runs through the course of the competition day. We are cutting and slicing all of that content and distributing it onto all the platforms. It is a tremendous amount of work that has swelled. Fortunately, we have moved into a state-of-the-art facility here in Stamford that enables us to continue to grow the quality and quantity of the distribution of the Olympics.

Q: Are the Olympics a primary driver of all the innovation taking place?

Gary: It’s the big one. The Olympics offer the opportunity to extend, test and experience the latest evolving and emerging technology platforms. For instance, there’s virtual reality. We will, in partnership with the International Olympic Committee and Samsung, broadcast daily virtual reality content a venue at a time. We will also make a limited amount of 4K content available as a showcase. It’s an opportunity for the technology companies and distributors like Comcast to showcase this new emerging technology in all its glory.

Q: How are you handling the Olympics for mobile devices and social media?

Gary: We’ll distribute what will amount to 6,000 hours made accessible on a mobile device. It still blows my mind that an iPhone or an Android device will allow access to 20 simultaneous streams during the course of a typical Olympic day, plus any one of our Olympic linear channels, a boatload of highlights, and rewinds of stuff you may not have otherwise seen. The road to getting to a place where we have been able to perfect that distribution of that content, in the highest quality available, has not been simple. But we have gotten there.

The Web and the mobile device emerged back in the early 2000s as a companion. It provided utility -- a way for people to access schedules, results, and occasionally highlights. Mobile devices are now coverage platforms. They are the devices that people will watch the Olympics on as it’s happening in real time, most likely when they’re not in their living room in front of their television. But because we’ve live in Rio, and because there will almost always be more than one thing going on, we think the digital device will be that now-fairly ubiquitous second screen where people will watch a primetime show and want to keep up with a boxing match, basketball game or soccer game. So it's a new day.

Q: What has you most excited about the marriage of Comcast’s technology and NBC’s storytelling?

Gary: The acquisition of NBCUniversal by Comcast may have had its greatest impact on NBCUniversal and the Olympics. The collaboration that began the minute that our companies were joined around the Olympics has been tremendous. It has informed us and the distribution community on how to optimize a viewing experience when there is this volume of content available all at once. It has been a crusade of ours to work with the distributors of the Olympics to help the viewer organize this massive volume of Olympic content. It is really difficult to inform the viewer who turns on that television what’s on, when it’s on, and where it’s on. That was something that we expressed to Comcast when we joined the family as something that we hoped to reach together someday. And we have crossed the finish line with the Rio Olympic experience that Comcast has built for the X1 platform.

We think the lift in viewership from presenting a customized experience to the television viewer should be tremendous. What we have seen is that to the extent we’ve made viewing the Olympics more accessible, viewers watch more, and they watch more primetime. At the end of the day, the way the American audience truly likes to experience the Olympics is sharing, watching and listening to those incredible stories that they’ve grown accustomed to hearing NBC tell. We think the more versatility that technology companies and distributors like Comcast can bring to that experience, the greater the viewership. We can’t be more excited about what Comcast, X1 and we are going do together in Rio.

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