Meaghan Haugh

As viewers across the country watched their United States team establish a new standard by capturing 37 medals during the 2010 Winter Games, NBC was in Canada to not only capture the Olympians’ every move but also, the rich culture and history of Vancouver, British Columbia.

Just as it took years of preparation for the athletes to ready themselves for the games, plenty of planning was involved to prepare the set of NBC’s Today Show, which broadcasted on location during the Winter Olympics. In the midst of all the action was Ashlee Bennett, a junior Communication major from Rider. In fact, Bennett, who had a co-op with the Today Show, arrived in Vancouver on January 14, almost a month before the opening ceremonies of the Winter Games on February 12.

Bennett was selected as one of 20 runners to assist the production of the Today Show’s coverage of the Olympics. During their first few weeks in Vancouver, the runners decorated the staff offices by hanging scenic photos and maps of the area, and programmed key numbers by hand into staff cell phones. The runners also drove around Vancouver to become familiar with the area and retrieved the show’s production staff from the airport.

“We ran to Staples multiple times and spent $2,000 on supplies, including pens, pencils, highlighters and files, enough for a hundred offices,” Bennett said. “During that first week, Staples loved us.”

After sharing her interest in interior design with the show’s production manager, Bennett was selected to work with the show’s set designer, Ed Helbig.

“Since we were in Vancouver, we wanted to find warm, rustic pieces, including chairs, pillows and artwork, for the set,” she explained. They also wanted to highlight the large presence of First Nations, or local native tribes in the area, so Helbig and Bennett visited art galleries on the city’s Granville Island to find art to decorate the set inside the lodge at Grouse Mountain.

“The owner of an art gallery, Eagle Spirit, allowed us to use whatever we wanted to use for the set,” Bennett added. We ended up using 15 to 20 pieces, including an eight-foot tall totem pole.”

Once the Olympics started, the Today Show staff and runners worked from midnight to noon. Taping for the show began at 4 a.m., so it would be live at 7 a.m. EST. Since the show was taped in a public lodge, Helbig and Bennett had to break down the set and move the furniture after the show each day. In the mornings, before taping, they would rearrange the furniture and artwork. In addition, Bennett helped prepare for the cooking segments.

During her co-op, Bennett had a chance to meet the entire crew of the Today Show, including Matt Lauer, Meredith Vieira, Ann Curry, Al Roker and Natalie Morales. She also rubbed elbows with U.S. Olympians Evan Lysacek, gold medalist in men’s figure skating; Shaun White, gold medalist in men’s snowboarding; and Meryl Davis and Charlie White, silver medalists in Ice Dance Figure Skating. In fact, almost every U.S. medalist came to the lodge to appear on the final show.

“I also met Wayne Gretzky. I’m a huge hockey fan, so that was a highlight of my life,” Bennett said. “I give the athletes tons of credit. Right after they won the gold medal, we would interview them at 4 a.m.”

Bennett said she was amazed by how fast the crew was able to break down the set after the final show. “It took months of preparation and weeks of hard work, only to be destroyed in a matter of days,” she wrote on her blog.

It was her Uncle Jack who encouraged Bennett to become a runner for the Olympics. Jack Bennett is the director of field operations at NBC. In fact, the family has a long history with the network. Her grandfather was a director of sports for the television network and her father, Michael Bennett, recently retired as a cameraman for Saturday Night Live and, previously, for The Cosby Show. In addition, Bennett’s cousin was a runner during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and now works for the network in Washington, D.C.

After talking to her professors in the Department of Communication last semester, Bennett was able to arrange to earn nine credits for the co-op and six credits for two other classes, including an independent study, where she plans to work on a film about the Today Show runners with Dr. Shawn Kildea, assistant professor of Communication.

Bennett said the experience opened her eyes to career opportunities in the field. In the future, she would like to work behind the scenes for NBC, and she already plans to apply to be a runner for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

“I learned so much about myself. I used public transportation to and from the co-op, which I had never done before. I ate new food,” said Bennett who plans to visit her new friends from Canada. “The co-op made such an impact. It was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. I would be lucky to have a career with NBC.”