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Chuck Pagano: ESPN’s Calculated Risk-Taker

Knowing what the future holds is the business of any soothsayer. But making predictions (and being right most of the time) is a challenge that engineers in the multichannel-video industry face every day as they navigate through the early phases of the TV Everywhere era and determine the right course for the hype-filled wonders of new eye-popping formats such as 4K/Ultra HD.

Chuck Pagano, ESPN’s executive vice president and chief technology officer, has a tremendous track record when it comes to staying ahead of the curve and making the correct decisions using a recipe that’s comprised of heavy doses of science and a dash or two of intuition.

Throughout a career at ESPN that stems back to 1979, initially as a technical director, this concoction has helped Pagano and the programmer remain focused on the needs of the present while also prepping for the unknown. Pagano’s ability as a calculated risk-taker has been taken to task through the years, recently with his spot-on bets on HDTV, and even the rare miss, including ESPN’s ambitious plans involving 3DTV.

But his entrepreneurial spirit has shined through it all, and will again as Pagano and his team assemble a new, massive facility in Bristol, Conn., that will house ESPN’s digital future — a future that will be built to accommodate 4K … someday.

Pagano’s philosophy for making those big decisions and weighing the risks doesn’t rely solely on absolutes. It instead leans on a broader scope of probabilities that, he said, provides the necessary wiggle room to change course and to avoid paths that could lead ESPN into a dreaded point of no return.

“I don’t make absolute vectors in the world of what I think is going to happen,” he said. “I try to put a quadrant together — scenarios that may happen. I keep my eyes and vista open. I’m an opportunist, and I like to keep my pulse on where the future is going.”

Anticipating what’s to come is very much in play with Digital Center 2 (DC2), ESPN’s 195,000-square-foot facility that’s slated to open its doors next spring.

The do-it-all DC2, being built across the street from the 120,000-square-foot DC1 facility, will support ESPN’s next-generation HD efforts and serve as the new studio home to its flagship program, SportsCenter. It won’t be equipped for 4K — at least not right away. But as a multiscreen content factory, DC2 will be modular enough to enable ESPN to pull the trigger on a 4K strategy when the programmer is convinced the market is ripe.

“I challenged my guys [with DC2] because I’m a firm believer that the television-technology space has not stopped innovating,” Pagano said. “I asked them to do it as a format-agnostic design for the cardiopulmonary system. All I have to do is attach 4K technology.”

And, sticking true to his ideology, he’s not offering any absolute predictions on 4K. “4K will eventually happen, but I’m not sure it’s going to happen in the way that HD happened,” Pagano said.

He said HDTV emerged in a “perfect storm” as the market shifted from bulky cathode ray tube-based TVs to a universe of sleek, flat-panel sets. “It wasn’t the resolution that tripped everyone towards it,” Pagano said of HDTV.

Pagano said the initial leg of 4K’s journey is lacking a similar benefit, adding that 4K is still missing a “wow factor” that will elevate consumer interest to the next level. “Everybody in the industry is still scratching their heads” about 4K, Pagano said, describing a recent visit to the Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers in Los Angeles.

“Right now, the current 4K stuff doesn’t get everybody wowed. This current implementation of 4K is just about resolution,” he explained. However, Pagano added, future generations of 4K will be graced with elements that will make it great platform for live sports, including better colorimetry (a method that quantifies and describes how people perceive color) and higher frame rates, and not just more, but “better,” pixels.

For now, Pagano said he thinks 1080p is already positioned to deliver on much of that. Besides, the necessary ecosystem of production gear to do 4K and do it right is still at the “infantile stage” and likely at least two years away from maturation, he said. And TV makers simply haven’t sold enough 4K sets to move the planning needle to activation mode at ESPN. Plus, he believes the distribution business is still waiting on High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC), a compression technology that promises to be 50% more efficient than H.264. He said ESPN will be ready to go when all of those stars align.

“But I don’t like being caught, and not prepared to take advantage of a change or a disruption,” he said. “I’m also making sure I’ve got myself covered in case something does stick.”

“We’re going to be keeping our eyes wide open. … I definitely want to be a leader in that [4K] space when the time is right, just as I was for HD.”

Of course, not every new technology and format does stick. 3DTV, as a recent example, simply missed the mark. ESPN was an early believer in 3DTV, launching ESPN3D in June 2010, but, in a bold move earlier this year, decided to pull the plug.

Pagano, who refers to ESPN’s 3D activities as a “science experiment,” acknowledges that the programmer underestimated consumer interest in 3DTV, but believes it was a smart, entrepreneurial risk that was worth taking.

“We’ve always had that desire to be curious, to be inquisitive and to take a chance on something to see what happens … Clearly the marketplace didn’t have an interest in [3DTV]. So we just adapt and go forward,” Pagano said, recalling that ESPN also briefly dabbled with its own cell phone in 2005 before scuttling that project.

“We learn; we’re curious. And if it doesn’t work, then we scrub the experiment and go for the next case study.”

And, as designed, ESPN’s new DC2 will serve as the perfect venue for Pagano and ESPN to keep pace with today’s needs while also keeping the door open for what’s to come.