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ESPN Exhales

Consider Chuck Pagano a kind of futurist. At this year's NAB, ESPN's senior vice president of technology, engineering, and operations will be searching for new ideas as well as new products.

"We'll look at everything from the 30,000-foot level," he says. "We'll be casual observers of where the trends are going."

That's because his shopping list is not nearly as extensive as it was last year. Pagano and ESPN spent 2003 outfitting the network's 120,000-square-foot digital facility in Stamford, Conn., a project expected to be completed by April. "Most of the shopping list for the digital center will be extinguished by then," he says. "We'll have a minimal presence at NAB, probably less than eight people."

Pagano and his team have been hard at work putting the systems acquired last year in place, so if he seems a little tired when he gets to Vegas, it's for good reason.

"Right now, the event horizon is in my lap," said Pagano. "Ninety-nine percent of my attention is going to be on the new facility over the next couple months."

That leaves about 1% of his time for NAB, but it's time he plans on using well.

High-definition gear will no doubt be near the top of his list since adding more HD programming will no doubt help the network gain carriage deals and drive more regional sports networks to consider HD production.

Along with the opening of the new digital center, SportsCenter, the network's flagship program, will begin production in HD in early spring. The network will also air 185 HD events in 2004, up from 100 since it began HD transmission about a year ago, although Pagano's role in getting HD to air has already been accomplished.

"Once you have the systems in place, it's a matter of having the content in high-definition," he says, adding that acquiring more sports coverage in high-definition will improve the on-air quality of the highlight-heavy SportsCenter.

This doesn't mean Pagano and his NAB contingent will spend the week at the craps tables. He has several areas of technology he plans to investigate in Las Vegas. "I'll still be looking at what technologies are in development. Two years ago, it was blue laser for high-capacity DVD. I want to know what the next version is."

Optical storage is just the beginning. Pagano cites graphics as another area for ESPN to watch closely. "It's a very important part of what we do." He also has ENG cameras and portable nonlinear editing systems on his wish list. In both cases, he says, smaller is better as he tries to make life easier for his crews.

Other technologies grabbing his attention include automation, which ESPN will use as a digital assistant rather than as a primary means of control. And since ESPN doesn't own the trucks that produce its HD feeds from remote events, he'll check out truck technology.

Pagano says he has learned one very important lesson in the past year: "Digital is not easier than analog. The opportunities and the technology cycles are so short that wholesale changes become the norm.

"No matter how easy the change seems," he adds, "it's never that easy. It requires technology and behavioral changes up and downstream. Getting people used to new ways of doing the work is the hardest part."