How Olympics ad used almost-live footage

A young girl writes down Rebecca Soni's record-setting time as motivation in the AT&T spot. Courtesy of AT&T

Have you seen those AT&T commercials showing young athletes watching NBC Olympics footage and using those record-setting times as motivation? There are all kinds of logistics that went into turning around footage into a commercial within a matter of days, when it usually takes months.

But in the case of Thursday, Aug. 2, AT&T completed the entire process in about six hours, allowing NBC to show the commercial featuring swimmer Rebecca Soni immediately following the U.S. airing of her world-record performance in the 200-meter butterfly.

All it took were hundreds of people, numerous international phone calls and a young man riding a bicycle through London traffic.

AT&T knew with NBC showing the tape-delayed Olympics in primetime, they might have enough time to show a commercial directly after the actual event, giving a sense of immediacy and energy to the advertisement, if the timing was right.

That happened with Soni on Aug. 2.

Before the Olympics, they filmed commercials for swimming, gymnastic and track and field – the most individual events in which Americans had a chance of winning gold or setting a record – with the kids watching a blank screen on an AT&T phone. Then, not knowing what time or score the Olympic athlete would finish with in London, they had the actors and actresses write down hundreds of potential times and scores in the commercials.

“We had the talent writing down every possible number they could,” said Vance Overbey, AT&T’s executive director of advertising. “In some cases, we had hand talent or a body double come in and do the writing.”

Once the commercial was in place, AT&T waited for the right event in which the advertising team would have enough time.

Here’s a timeline of the process on Aug. 2.

2:50 ET: Rebecca Soni sets the world record in the 200-meter breaststroke with a time of 2:19.59. It's 7:50 in London.

3:10 ET: The AT&T advertising team receives a call from NBC confirming their plans to air the commercial during that night’s telecast immediately following the tape-delayed airing of the race. NBC says they need the footage by 7:30 ET to move forward.

3:15 ET: AT&T sends a courier on bike -- traffic in London was crazy – to retrieve the footage from NBC’s international broadcast center.

4 ET: The courier returns with the footage to the editing studio. For the next two hours, AT&T’s editing people fit the footage into the previously taped commercial of the young swimmer watching the race in her home. This was more difficult than it may sound -- they had to edit the commercial frame by frame, all while ensuring the audio mixes correctly.

6:15 ET: With the final commercial in hand, the advertising team now needs to seek approval from the lawyers at AT&T, the U.S. Olympic Committee and NBC. This takes a considerable amount of time because they need to ensure the race footage doesn’t mention any brands or athletes AT&T doesn't have the rights to.

7:15 ET: Everybody signs off on the commercial, and now it’s time to rush the tape back to the international broadcast center. The file is too large to download, so they send two copies by ground transportation -- one via bike courier, and another via taxi.

8:25 ET: With the AT&T team growing increasingly worried about the silence, NBC finally calls to confirm receipt of the commercial tape. NBC now begins to run it through their system by hand, an act that is ordinarily done digitally.

8:55 ET: NBC calls AT&T to confirm the commercial will air immediately following the race.

9:35 ET: The Soni world-record race is shown in the U.S., followed by Bob Costas providing a 20-second recap of the race. And then NBC goes straight into AT&T’s commercial.

“And we all breathed a sigh of relief,” Overbey said.