The man directing NBC’s coverage of the Sochi Winter Olympics got his start in the audiovisual room at Park Forest Elementary School.
David Mazza, senior vice president for engineering with NBC’s Olympics Division, is a 35-year broadcast industry veteran now working his 13th Olympic Games.
“I had a passion from an early age,” Mazza said by phone from Sochi, Russia, where his team is gearing up for Friday’s opening festivities.
Mazza’s parents, Maralyn and the late Paul Mazza Jr., founded South Hills School of Business and Technology. Maralyn is the school’s president; Paul Mazza died March 9.
“He has no ego,” Maralyn Mazza said of her son. “He doesn’t think he’s great. So people love him and want to work for him.”
David Mazza has a resume that includes technical work at 13 Wimbledon tennis championships, 10 seasons of the National Hockey League and Stanley Cup playoffs, and three Super Bowls.
He has received 22 Emmy Awards, given for television excellence, and took home the 2006 GE Edison Award for technical innovation.
In April, he will add a Lifetime Achievement Award at the New York Festivals International Television and Film Awards taking place at the National Association of Broadcasters show in Las Vegas.
“He has a wall full of Emmys, but he’s so humble and modest,” Gina Mazza, of State College, said of her brother. “He’s easy to boast about, because he doesn’t have an ego.”
Gina Mazza is South Hills’ vice president and director of marketing. She recalled young David rewiring gadgets in the family’s State College home, the seeds of global broadcasting success already beginning to sprout.
“He definitely had a geeky side, hanging out in the basement with wires all around him,” Gina Mazza said. “If something new came to the house, he took it apart. But he was also a really easy-going kid, with a bunch of friends, a love for skiing."
“He and his younger brother had the place wired,” Maralyn Mazza recalled. “They were connecting things up all the time. I couldn’t go down the stairs without lights flashing and bells going.”
Maralyn said her late husband always said of David’s experimenting with electronics: “ ‘Just let him go. Maybe it will turn into a career for him.’ And sure enough, it did.”
‘David did it his way’
David Mazza recalled “threading projectors for classes” as a member of the AV Club at Park Forest Elementary, then loading a slide projector and even making copies at the Park Forest Junior High. He said while he was at the junior high, it opened its first black-and-white photography studio.
An early influence, Mazza said, was Robert S. Williams, a media specialist with the State College Area School District for 38 years. Williams retired in 1999, and died last June in Sarasota, Fla.
“He really got me started,” Mazza said.
“Before (Williams) died, we were able to give him one of David’s Emmys,” Maralyn Mazza said. “He was very excited about that.”
At State High, David had a production-assistant internship at Penn State’s WPSX-TV, working with cameras and audio equipment and also getting his feet wet in stage management. He said as a 10th-grader, he gained experience as a “runner” at Penn State football broadcasts, where he “pulled cables on the sidelines.”
After high school, David tried college courses but “he hated it,” his mother said.
“There are all kinds of ways to skin a cat,” Maralyn Mazza said. “David did it his way. He learned by doing everything he could do on his own.”
That involved time at Alvo Electronics, downstairs at the corner of Pugh Street and College Avenue in State College, David Mazza said. He also worked at Custom Audio, providing sound reinforcement for live performances around Penn State.
“This was a few years after Woodstock,” Mazza said. “They had a good many concerts on the fields on campus. Those fields are now probably covered with buildings.”
The combination of sports and music stuck with Mazza, who learned to build electronic components from kits and honed his skills in sound production and lighting.
“Doing both the football games and the concerts was what pulled me in the direction of the performance aspect of live sports,” he said.
‘Turned into a career’
Mazza said he gained valuable experience as a part-time engineer with WNEP-TV out of Scranton.
“They would send one truck to town for Penn State sports events,” he said.
Another experience brought together Mazza’s love of broadcasting with another passion: skiing.
He and a buddy set out to hitchhike to Colorado. When they hit St. Louis, the friend veered off for Mexico. But Mazza made it to the Rockies.
“I spent a year as a ski bum in Dillon, Colo.,” Mazza said. “I basically washed dishes and skied every day. But one day, I saw an ad in the paper that said, ‘Wanted: Good skier with electrical background.’ It fit me perfectly.”
He called Omega Timing, a Swiss watch company, and landed a job that took him to Europe to help with logistics for a major skiing event.
It was a downhill competition, but his career was headed up.
Mazza said in the late 1970s and into the 1980s, freelancing was the way the work was done.
“In those days, ESPN was just starting,” he said. “Places like that didn’t have full-time staff. The networks even now use a lot of freelancers.”
Of the 2,800 people NBC has working in Sochi, 1,200 are freelancers, Mazza said.
He freelanced from 1980 to 1994, when he took a full-time job with NBC. Those freelancing years included working on HBO’s coverage of boxing and Wimbledon tennis, and the MTV Video Music Awards.
“It is very much a hired-gun sort of business,” Mazza said. “And back in the 1990s, it was very much a startup business. It was a good time to start in the business. Everybody was new and learning. Now it’s bigger and more sophisticated.”
Mazza lived in Pittsburgh from 1982-87, grabbing work on broadcasts of Pirates and Penguins games and other events.
“I spent 287 days on the road my last year there,” he said. “I basically knew how to get from the airport to my apartment in Shady Side.”
While living in Pittsburgh, David said, he got married to another State College native, Taylor McCall-Mazza. They moved to Boston, where David helped develop studios for the Christian Science Monitor.
‘I have been so lucky’
The freelancing ended when he took an offer to help plan NBC’s coverage for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
“I thought it was going to be a two-year job,” he said. “It turned into a career.”
Indeed it did.
Although he had experienced four Olympic Games during his freelancing days, a network’s coverage was now his baby.
Mazza led the development of NBC’s International Broadcast Center in Atlanta, including the creation of a “Virtual IBC” that allowed for split reporting from both Georgia and New York.
He guided growth and technological enhancements at the games from 2000 in Sydney through 2012 in London. Those years saw NBC add high-definition broadcasting and livestreaming on the Web, then branching out to tablet and mobile devices.
A recent project was the building of the headquarters of the NBC Sports Group in Stamford, Conn. Mazza was lead designer and project manager for the effort.
The center opened in December 2012, and is now home to NBC Sports Group, NBC Sports Network, NBC Olympics, NBC Digital and management teams with the NBC Regional Sports Network.
David’s brother, Paul Mazza III, works at the facility in Connecticut and will be supporting coverage in Sochi from there.
“The NBC people who put this on are an incredible group,” Maralyn Mazza said. “People who work there have incredible respect for (David). A lot of people working there have been doing it for a long time, and many of them do it because of him.”
“He is completely self-taught,” Gina Mazza said of David. “He took advantage of every opportunity that has come his way. But that skill is coupled with wonderful leadership abilities.”
Two of Gina’s daughters, Alessandra “Sondi” Stachowski, 24, and Isabella “Bella” Stachowski, 22, are working with NBC in Sochi. They are in the network’s film room, pulling together footage of the many athletes to be used during NBC’s two weeks of programming from Russia.
‘Bring great stories’
David Mazza said work on the systems and facilities began last year and most have been in place at Sochi for months. But in the past week the people to operate those systems have been arriving in droves.
Charter flights began bringing crews in last Sunday, and about 1,000 people will have arrived by this weekend. Mobile units for NBC and other media companies have been delivered by boat.
“It’s a mad dash to the opening ceremonies,” Mazza said.
Crews have been testing systems and rehearsing coverage.
And Mazza’s crews have been working through logistical challenges. For example, there is no UPS or FedEx service into Russia, he said, so everything — even a replacement switch or circuit board — is carried in by personnel flying or boating to the site.
Internet service has been bolstered to handle the incredible demands on the system. Power generators have been set up in case of electrical problems.
“We go to great lengths to have multiple ways to get on the air,” he said. “We have backups on top of backups behind backups.”
Mazza added: “We’re kind of used to this. But we are taking a lot of steps to make certain the right image is on the screen at the right time.”
Digital networks connect Sochi with Stamford, and also with NBC centers in Florida, New York, California, Colorado and around the world.
Mazza said the “subway map” of the transmission system is color-coded and “uses pretty much the whole Crayola box” because there are so many connections.
“Hopefully, we’ll not have the power go out,” he said. “And hopefully we’ll not have the fibers cut or lose our satellite connections.”
Sochi’s Olympic venues are spread from the city along the Black Sea into the mountains inland. Media crews will fan out among Adler Arena (speed skating), Ice Cube (curling), Bolshoy Ice Dome and Shayba Arena (hockey), Iceberg Skating Palace (figure and short-track speed skating) and the Fisht Olympic Stadium near the Olympic Village, and out to the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center and Extreme Park (skiing, snowboarding), Sanki Sliding Centre (bobsled, skeleton, luge), RusSki Gorki Ski Jumping Center (ski-jumping and Nordic events) and biathlon and cross-country skiing stations — all within a 30-minute drive from town.
One major challenge, Mazza said, is coordinating numerous events simultaneously.
“It’s like 12 Super Bowls all going on at the same time,” he said. “The number of people watching at any one time pales in comparison to the Super Bowl. But the aggregate audience is higher.”
Maximizing that audience is a combination of technology and content strategy, Mazza said. Coverage will feature numerous human-interest stories because the games mean families are watching, and casual sports followers tune in for the personalities as much as outcomes.
“Our goal is to bring great stories into your living room,” he said. “We’re not really catering to just sports fans.”
He added: “We relish the large audience, which drives our ratings, which drives our revenue, which drives our profitability.”
‘Glued to the set’
New features for 2014 include: high-speed, super-motion cameras; GoPro cameras mounted on bobsleds and other moving objects; and visual enhancements including on-screen graphics that give viewers more information about an event or athlete.
“All of the new technology gets rolled out at Olympic time,” Mazza said. “We hope to show things people haven’t seen before that will pique their interest.”
After Sochi, Mazza and his team will get a short break before turning their focus to the 2016 Summer Games in Brazil.
“After it’s over, it usually takes a couple of months for the fatigue to wear off,” Mazza said. “Then, you just remember the good parts, and you’re ready to do it all again. It’s an interesting dynamic.”
“We’re extremely proud of David and the crew over there and all of the Americans over there,” Maralyn Mazza said. “And we’ll be glued to the set on opening night.”
And when the cameras follow the action on the ski slopes, in the curling arena and on the ice for hockey and figure skating.
An audience of 40 million people tuned in for the network’s first night of coverage from London two years ago.
The 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver drew 190 million U.S. viewers, with more than 26 million taking in the hockey gold medal game between Canada and the United States.
The Vancouver Games’ website boasts that 3.5 billion people across the globe tuned in for some of the action four years ago.
“It is so exciting when the Olympics finally roll out on television, knowing that so much is riding on what someone so close to me has helped to orchestrate,” Gina Mazza said. “It adds to the exhilaration of the whole experience.”
As Maralyn Mazza said: “The world is watching.”
Follow Chip Minemyer on Twitter @MinemyerChip.