Olympic spirit: NBC’s broadcast has roots in Ridgefield
If it takes a village to raise an Olympian, then what does it take to construct a multi-platform television broadcast that engages viewers from around the world?
It’s a question that can be answered in Ridgefield — home of Tucker West of Team USA’s men’s luge team — better than most residents would expect.
That’s because Ridgefield has plenty of hands — a dozen pairs, to be exact — working behind the scenes to produce the 2018 Winter Games for NBC Sports Group.
“The Olympics are always going to be about athletes, but when you sense that small-town feel working behind the scenes, it makes the games all that much more personal,” said Ridgefielder Bob Liu, a software release and quality assurance engineer at NBC. “It’s like we have our own mini Olympic Village here in Stamford.”
Liu is one of five residents who’ve been working in Stamford to help build NBC’s two-week broadcast. There are seven more on the ground in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
“We keep track of all the media in our systems — what’s coming in, what’s being sent out,” said Kane Colarusso, another resident who’s working as a media coordinator for NBC’s digital media. “We make sure there’s enough space in the servers, we make sure the footage looks good before it goes out …
“There’s a lot of communication between our people here in Stamford and our people on the ground in South Korea,” he added. “It’s a big group effort.”
It’s also one that requires a tireless attitude.
Colarusso has been working a 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. shift. His fellow Ridgefielder, Peter Ceponis, has been going from 3 p.m. to 3 a.m. as a producer on NBC’s media assets team.
“It’s my first time doing an overnight shift,” Colarusso said around 11 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 13. “I’m saying ‘good night’ to people eating breakfast in our cafeteria or who are coming into the building. For years, it’s been the other way around. Now the shoe’s on the other foot and I’m quite tired.”
The long shifts require someone like Colarusso to live out of a Stamford hotel during the Winter Games, despite having an apartment that’s less than 45 minutes away.
“Curtains have to be down by noon and I have to be asleep by 12:30,” he said. “There’s a certain cut-off distance where NBC will pay for you to stay close to campus, and Ridgefield makes that cut … you can’t be struggling to get back and forth.”
That type of dedication to work may seem daunting to some, but Colarusso believes the games wouldn’t be able to function without it.
“This is the kind of event where everybody has to be all in or it won’t work,” he said. “You have to have fresh people...You have to be all in.”
“You’d better be up and ready for it,” he said.
As with Colarusso, the 2018 Winter Games are Ceponis’s first time working the Olympics.
“The challenge is getting used to the intensity of it. … There’s a lot more scrutiny, it’s a much more pressurized situation than putting on a Premier League game or a NASCAR race,” he said.
The big task at hand means employees have to step up to the task — something Ceponis enjoys.
“It gets you more focused, more on your game,” he said. “The more intense it gets, the more fun it can end up being, actually.”
Part of the fun stems from the family dynamic that builds over the months of training together with coworkers.
Ceponis said he and his team trained together three months before the opening ceremony was broadcast.
“You get to know everybody who’s in the room with you pretty well,” he said. “There’s lot of people with multiple Olympic experience here, some dating back to 1996.”
He found out about his assignment in November and was “ecstatic.”
“I’ve been a fan of the Olympics since I was 10,” Ceponis said. “To be part of the coverage, and in the heart of the broadcast operation center, is exciting.”
Colarusso shares that feeling. He joined NBC Sports back in 2013 as a creative assistant in the production department but made a lateral move to digital media, where he now works with a small engineering team.
The switch has paid dividends.
Just three days before the Olympics started, Colarusso was in Minneapolis helping produce this year’s Super Bowl — and watching his favorite NFL team, the Philadelphia Eagles, capture this year’s Lombardi Trophy.
“My team [of five] doesn’t usually do the Olympics, but we’re pitching in and helping out,” he said. “Two of us were in Minneapolis and two others were in South Korea a few days before it began, so it was a bit of a scramble to get back here in town and make sure everything was organized and ready to go...
"A lot of the job during the Olympics is about figuring out what content they need on the ground in South Korea, whether it's home videos or competition clips from US Nationals or just your generic podium shots," Colarusso added.
"We're a small piece of this puzzle; we all have strengths and skills that allow us to work here at this level...There are countless of other people who help put this on, both from Ridgefield and from all over over the world.
NBC Sports’ content has been splattered across an array of digital streaming platforms — from Snapchat to Roku to Amazon Fire TV to YouTube.
The cross-platform puzzle has been a lot easier to configure in 2018 than it was four years ago during the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
“We’ve been building up the apps and our mobile coverage and we’ve seen a big difference in growth,” said Liu. “It’s all about building up a base of users who aren’t watching on a television screen — the cord cutters.”
He said the manpower has doubled since 2014, and that has produced an increase in preparedness that has yielded great ratings results. Sunday night’s telecast netted 26 million viewers — most dominant Winter Games Sunday night ever for NBC Olympics.
And only five days into the Pyeongchang Olympics, NBC Sports Digital had established a Winter Games record, with 445 million live streaming minutes through Monday afternoon — topping the 420 million live streaming minutes for the full 2014 Sochi Olympics.
“The TV side is still our biggest,” Liu said, “but the digital production side is pretty staggering.”
Even fellow NBC employees, like Ceponis, have noticed a shift.
“I haven’t had much work in this area,” he said of streaming content through Snapchat. “It’s been an eye-opening experience.”
No place like home
Colarusso said he moved around a lot growing up. He moved to Connecticut on a whim when he was hired five years ago, and settled on Ridgefield because he was “ready for [his] first apartment with no roommates.”
“This is the first place I can call my own, that I can call home,” he said. “When you move somewhere unfamiliar because of work, it feels sort of like a formality. But Ridgefield felt right, it felt like home — like there was a purpose here.”
Colarusso would love to stay in town for the long term, noting that he’s getting used to “pseudo settling down” and that Ridgefield is commutable to a place he loves to work.
Liu, who’s lived in town for two decades and raised a family here, sees the appeal.
“It takes a village, at home and abroad, to produce something like the Olympics,” he said. “I’m just glad I get to see familiar faces — some of them from my hometown — every day when I walk in and enjoy the camaraderie.”