They came, they saw, they cabled Calgary. When ABC Sports tackles an Olympics -- and its 16-day, 94 1/2-hour coverage of the 1988 Calgary Games marks its fourth consecutive Winter Olympics telecast -- the network leaves no stone unturned (actually, no bobsled run unwired).
The task of producing Olympics coverage is like no other in sports television. It's sort of like trying to track the creation of the world -- except there are more venues.
"The Super Bowl is a huge operation. A golf remote is big. But the Olympics is in a class of its own," said Herb Kraft, ABC Sports' vice president of Olympics broadcast operations and engineering. "It's overwhelming. . . . Especially at the venues, you know you have only so much time to set up. 'Have I checked with all the crews? Do I have enough wiring? Are the right people coming in tomorrow?' That goes on all the time. There's a continuous concern that you've missed something."
The headache -- and this one will cost ABC $309 million in rights fees and $100 million in production and equipment -- begins more than three years before the Games. ABC and the Canadian Television Network (the host broadcaster) had a joint engineering study. Then ABC broke down its planning into three areas -- operations (how many cars and rooms are needed, where to set up broadcasting headquarters, etc.); technical (making engineering decisions based on operations information); production.
And in an operation that includes 1,250 people interfacing with the rest of the world, you expect problems.
"Equipment problems are normal," Kraft said. "One of the problems we have had is that some of the equipment we had leased, we were told, would operate in conjunction with other equipment. It didn't. We had to call the factory and get some software changes made. That could've been a disaster.
"You're not able to rest until after the closing ceremonies. All the facilities requested are required every day. Once the competition starts, any day you can have a problem. I just hope we don't."
Actually, these Games might be easier to produce than any in ABC history. The Canadians, as host broadcasters, are responsible for the main feed on almost every event; speed skating is the only venue in which ABC is doing its own coverage. Everywhere else, it will supplement the Canadians' coverage. The key is that ABC Sports and its Canadian counterpart speak the same language in more ways than one.
"Not being the host broadcaster impacts very favorably in a situation like this," said Geoffrey Mason, ABC Sports' vice president of Olympic production. "These people do sports coverage basically the same as we do, as opposed to going to Yugoslavia or Austria where their philosophy is different. We share what I call the North American style of Olympic coverage.
"Europeans are more sports-oriented. We tend to be -- I guess I'll say it -- up close and personal. They can go on the air with a luge competition from Innsbruck, show the competition and sign off. We have to educate our viewers on the luge because they don't see it very often."
In addition to a cooperative relationship with the Canadians, Mason and ABC also will benefit from venues designed with television in mind. For instance, the Saddledome, where the figure skating and ice hockey competitions will be, is a TV haven.
"This is the best situation we've ever had," said Mason, who has worked on Olympics productions since 1968. "All the buildings were built or modified with television in mind. We've walked the turf, sat where the cameras will be. All the venues will be de-bugged. We already have a fairly good idea of how it all will look. In the past, we've had to wait literally up to the opening ceremonies for some venues to be finished."
ABC built a 60,000-square foot Olympic Broadcast Center, and with four very, very big vans, transported the master control to Calgary. When the Games end, the master control will be dismantled and transported to the Republican and Democratic conventions before going home to the network's New York facilities.
Out on the ski slopes and bobsled runs, ABC will break ground technologically on several fronts:
A "point-of-view" unit, with micro minicams attached to skiers' helmets or hockey players' sticks during practice to bring viewers closer to each event.
"Super slo mo" cameras, familiar to football and baseball viewers, will be used in Olynpic skiing for the first time. They also will be used in hockey, ski jumping and figure skating.
Extensive emphasis on sound, producing what Mason said "should be better audio than ever before in any Olympics or sporting competition." In men's downhill skiing, 60 microphones will be used, at least twice as many as before.
"It's going to be terrific," Mason said. He also acknowledged that it will be terrific one day after this potential production nightmare finishes, when he'll be sitting poolside in Palm Springs "thinking about nothing."