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Chuck Pagano: ‘Mayor’ of ESPN

Chuck Pagano, chief technology officer
of ESPN and winner of the 2012 NCTA Vanguard Award
for Science & Technology, is an engineer, of course.
And a degreed organizational psychologist. And an astronomer,
and a math whiz, and a man with such deep
reserves of natural curiosity and good cheer, it’s hard to
picture him bored or angry.

“You can be sitting in a room of people who are strangers
to each other, and Chuck walks in the room, and everyone
turns around and says, ‘Hi, Chuck!’ ” colleague
and longtime friend John Eberhard, vice president of
technology and distribution for the network, said of Pagano,
who has also been named to Broadcasting & Cable’s
2012 Hall of Fame class, to be honored at an annual
dinner in October.

On campus, employees call him “the mayor of ESPN,”
for his avuncular blend of kindness and smarts, and the
way he remembers people’s names and life details.

Pagano champions women in technology — and he
walks the talk. In late April, he and four female colleagues
trekked to the University of Connecticut, to judge inventions
by elementary and middle-school girls.

“I believe women bring different perspectives on logic,
and different analytical abilities,” he explained. Plus, “I
remember when I was an engineering grad, how boring it
was not having any girls in the classes.”


As a kid, Pagano wanted to be a disc jockey, after seeing a guy
doing an outdoor on-air show at a nearby JC Penney store.
By the time he was 24, he’d worked at three radio and two
TV stations.

He landed at ESPN in its earliest days (1978), when the tech
team numbered 14. (Today’s count: 811.) Microwave links
were the state of the state in video distribution back then.
When satellite delivery arrived, ESPN was one of the first networks
(after HBO) to put it in action.

“What I’ve always admired about Chuck is, he’s always focused
on quality, and so are we,” said Bob Zitter, CTO of HBO.
“We work together on things that both of our companies are
doing, going back to the early days of satellite scrambling.
He’s really out there, pushing the envelope to advance the
state of the art.”

When ESPN rolled into 3D sports, for instance, Pagano
organized face-to-face meetings between its production
teams and HBO’s. “They were very gracious in helping to
inform us about the things they’d been experiencing and
learning,” Zitter said.

Pagano’s biggest challenge so far in his 33 years at ESPN:
Building a 120,000-square-foot digital facility, in the early
2000s — when high-definition TV was still on the horizon,
especially in terms of available equipment.

“I said, ‘I’m going to regroup and see if we can build it as an
HD center,’ ” Pagano recalled. “People thought we were nuts.”

That included the then-CEO of ESPN, Steve Bornstein,
now president and CEO of the National Football League, who
(among several others) calls himself Pagano’s biggest fan. “He
managed to convince me to make the commitment to invest
the capital to turn the plant into a digital center,” Bornstein
said. “The real beauty of Chuck is, he can see around corners
clearer than anyone else in television.”

On the eve of the center’s opening, Pagano took George
Bodenheimer, now ESPN’s executive chairman, on a tour.
“There’s all this gleaming technology, this beautiful construction
work,” Bodenheimer said. “I asked him what he
was most proud of. He walks us to a door — to a coat closet
— and says that the No. 1 employee request was to have a
nice place to hang up their jackets.

“It’s a mindset with him — always keeping our people top
of mind,” Bodenheimer continued. “His contributions go well
beyond technical prowess.”


These days, ESPN stores 7 petabytes of video sports assets,
just to stay on top of the day-to-day business. “In
technical terms, that’s a boatload of hard disk,” Pagano
quipped. From the Bristol, Conn., digital center, 80 OC-
192 circuits (10 Gbps each), augmented by 26 satellite antennas
and 400 satellite receivers, link out to facilities in
Los Angeles; London; Singapore; São Paulo, Brazil; Buenos
Aires, Argentina; Australia; and Japan.

When he’s not seeing around corners, Pagano dabbles
in just about everything with a whiff of scientific or technological
advancement. He’s a regular at nearby Wesleyan
University, taking pick-up classes every semester
in astronomy, math and various liberal arts. “He’ll say, ‘I
haven’t had a math course in a while, I’m going to take
3D calculus this semester,’ ” Eberhard said. “And we say,
‘For fun?’ ”

That’s on top of his bachelor’s in electrical engineering
and master’s in organizational psychology from the
University of Hartford, where he serves on the Board of
Regents and the Board of Advisers for the College of Engineering.
Other board work: The Connecticut Technology
Council, the Tunxis Community College Foundation and
the Palace Theater in Waterbury, Conn.

Pagano is the quintessential family man. He lives in Waterbury
in the house he grew up in; two sisters live within a
half-mile of him and their mom, Helen, in opposite directions.
He cites his parents as his mentors — Helen, for the
scientific curiosity, and his father, Charles (who passed in
1984), for his work ethic and family focus.

As a proud uncle, he’s instrumental in the lives and educations
of four nieces and one nephew. “I’m hoping to get
a geek out of at least one of them,” he joked.

Up next for Pagano: Another new facility — 190,000
square feet, this time — to make ESPN “format-agnostic,
with infrastructure that can take advantage of anything
that comes next,” he said.

Perhaps ironically, Pagano is not a gadget guy — a simple
flip phone is his preference — and he isn’t passionate
about sports. Not that either matters to his mission: “If you
look at the back of my card, our mission is to serve sports
fans, anytime, anywhere. Period.”