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ESPN: Everything Is in Play

For ESPN, NAB will be even bigger than usual. The cable sports giant usually travels to the show with "a specific niche focus of what we need to maintain," says Chuck Pagano, senior vice president of technology, engineering and operations. This year, though, the network's engineering team has a much broader mission: identifying relevant technology for a new 120,000-square-foot digital facility it will be building through 2005.

ESPN will also be monitoring advances in HDTV production technology, since it is launching HDTV in March and plans to produce more than 100 events in 720p in the format this year. Although ESPN will upconvert regular NTSC programming to fill out the rest of its HDTV broadcast day, its HDTV offering will dramatically increase in second quarter 2004, when Sportscenter
is slated to go hi-def.

"This year, we're going strong as we have two large projects," says Pagano. "So our shopping cart has gotten a lot more generalized. It's a significant facility we're building, and our needs span all facets of broadcast equipment."

With the NAB show floor so large, Pagano says, "it's hard to assimilate everything you see." That's why he values building relationships with manufacturers to get a "pretty good vision" of what's in the technology pipeline.

The technical innovation of ESPN's new facility will extend beyond HDTV. Indeed, ESPN's plan to create a nonlinear, server-based facility to facilitate creative collaboration and quick repurposing of content represents a significant shift in the network's approach to technology.

"The people aspects here are really important," says Pagano. "It may be an overused term, but we really are making a paradigm shift here. We'll be changing the culture, the workflow, the thought processes and the expectation profile. We're reinventing television here."

Pagano's goal is to replace ESPN's current tape-based "sneakernet" with high-speed networking. An "ingest theater" will record incoming content on MPEG-2 video servers; once contents is in the MPEG-compressed domain, ESPN will be "distribution-agnostic" in handling its media, whether it is distributing its feed to cable systems or repurposing content for the Web. Although ESPN is currently considering a base video-distribution format of 50 Mb/s I-frame-only MPEG-2 for the new plant, new compression technology may let ESPN go lower than that.

ESPN will also be evaluating newsroom computer systems and nonlinear editors, central to the collaborative production environment planned.

Pagano is interested in digital video tools that can help track the reams of video that ESPN deals with daily. He is looking for software that could process incoming material by performing pattern recognition, such as recognizing a score change, and automatically generate metadata that could later speed production of a highlight package.