Jonathan Tew and Rusty Knott work only a few yards away from where the gold medal will be decided in table tennis, although it’s hard to tell from inside the control room where they have spent the Olympics. There are monitors, workstations, racks of equipment and white boards, but mostly there’s plywood, fresh enough to exude a powerful chemical smell.
This is the commentary control room for table tennis, a plywood box the size of a shipping container, where the voices of announcers seated near the court are merged with the generic television feed and sent onward to be distributed around the world. And that great diversity of languages is managed in English, with North Carolina accents.
Tew is from Clinton, Knott is from Raleigh, and they’re two of the dozens of Triangle television freelancers who pack up every two years to work the Olympics, what is essentially summer camp for TV people.
Getting the Olympics on television around the world is just as complicated an operation as it would seem. The IOC’s own broadcast division, Madrid-based Olympic Broadcast Services, hires broadcasters from around the world to produce what is known as the “world feed,” a generic broadcast of every single sport and event.
This creates some weird mixes: women’s basketball used trucks and equipment from Romania with an Israeli crew; field hockey, next door, used Croatian trucks with a Dutch crew. Rightsholders around the world – NBC in the United States – either take that feed and add their own announcers, or in the case of NBC, supplement the world feed with their own extra cameras and production trucks.
NBC imported full-sized production semitrailers from the United States for its most important events: the opening and closing ceremonies, swimming, track, gymnastics and beach volleyball, which is how a truck with a Pennsylvania license plate ended up parked on Copacabana Beach. It also has portable production units known as “flypacks” – essentially a mini production truck in a portable, shippable rack – set up at golf, basketball, diving, volleyball and the Copacabana studio that hosts “Today.”
That allows NBC to pick and choose from the world feed while keeping its focus on American athletes, not a luxury most international broadcasters have.
To pull all of this off, OBS brings in 7,100 television freelancers from around the world, including the United States, while NBC has 2,200 American employees, freelancers and interns in Rio de Janeiro, including about 20 from the Triangle, according to an NBC spokesman. That includes Karen Pearce, who grew up in Hamlet, lives in Hillsborough and works at UNC-TV, which is flexible with her schedule as she travels the country on her off days working for NBC Sports as an audio engineer and uses her vacation time to go to the Olympics.
Pearce has done every Olympics since Athens, when a co-worker back home couldn’t go and she went instead for OBS. The past two, she’s been with NBC. In Rio, Pearce worked closely with the gymnastics announcers, taking care of their microphones and sound, the first time she’s been in a venue instead of a truck or broadcast compound.
“(With OBS) that cultural thing is really cool, to have that interaction,” Pearce said. “With NBC, it’s a lot of the same people I work with whether it’s figure skating or gymnastics outside of the Olympics or Sunday night football. They’re great people. It’s just different, apples and oranges.”
One key OBS executive, Andrea Sumner, is a North Carolinian born and bred, a native of Charlotte who went to UNC and got her start at UNC-TV. She had worked a few Olympics, starting in Atlanta, before joining the OBS staff, one of only 140 full-time employees, and is now the commentary facilities manager, overseeing construction of the radio and TV announcer booths at each venue as well as within the massive International Broadcast Center, where broadcasters have their Olympic studios.
“It’s closer to a four-year process,” Sumner said. “I’m already working on Tokyo, I’m full-throttle on Korea. The turnaround between summer and winter games is brutal. We can’t stop planning winter while the summer planning is going on. We just cannot.”
It’s not that you don’t want to be home, but it’s a big world and there are a lot of opportunities out there.
N.C. native Andrea Sumner of Olympic Broadcast Services
Sumner has spent years living at the site of upcoming Olympics – China, Canada, England – and is now based in Madrid, where English is the default OBS language but she is one of very few native speakers, while her husband and family remain back in Durham. At one point, back home after two years in Beijing, a supermarket cashier asked her a question in Spanish. She responded in Chinese.
“It’s not that you don’t want to be home,” Sumner said, “but it’s a big world and there are a lot of opportunities out there.”
When Sumner needed bodies for Beijing, she invited several of the freelancers she worked with at UNC-TV or on football, basketball and hockey broadcasts. Since then, many have found their way into Commentary Control Rooms at the Olympics, a sort of Triangle mafia within OBS.
“Is a sense of adventure, right?” said Knott, 44.
“It is. And for me, every time I get the call for a games, I’m just as excited as I was for Beijing. It’s special,” said Tew, 35.
“When I did not get the call for Sochi, I was not very excited at all. I can say that,” Knott said.
Tew and Knott are part of a six-person CCR crew at table tennis that includes Slovenians, Britons and Brazilians. There isn’t a lot to do during the competition. The real work is done getting set up and making sure all the international broadcasters have the right equipment and it works. After that, it’s basically sitting around waiting for something to go wrong.
Work is work
There’s a CCR at every venue, and many have North Carolinians in charge. Cary Stedman, another former UNC-TV staffer, is the CCR manager at men’s basketball. Durham’s Alexander Carlson is the CCR manager at women’s basketball and modern pentathlon – a camera operator by trade, with a regular gig doing football and basketball for an SEC Network crew.
“I’m totally out of my element,” Carlson, 36, joked.
He has spent the Olympics in far-flung Deodoro, about an hour from the Olympic Park. Sometimes, he comes in three months early to be part of the installation team; with a newborn at home, he passed on that in Brazil. Sumner hired him for Beijing; he’s worked every Olympics since. This is his fifth.
“Work is work,” Carlson said. “There’s nothing fantastic or glamorous about it, just behind-the-scenes television. Everybody wants to be in television, but they don’t want to put in the work and run the cables and sit in a control room and stare at a computer screen and make sure everything’s working.”
What keeps them coming back, other than the summer work since the Triangle doesn’t have baseball to sustain the TV freelance economy, is the camaraderie. Each CCR crew has a Brazilian attached to serve as a local guide, and many friendships are conducted with freelancers from other countries in month-long bursts every two years.
“As soon as we get to be really good friends,” Knott said, “it’s time to go home.”
But the Triangle definitely has a presence of its own in Rio. On the first day of basketball competition, a UNC car flag hung from the sign outside the men’s basketball control room, a visible marker of the Triangle’s work behind the scenes.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock