ESPN Gets in the HD Game

Talk about a first step. ESPN's new 120,000-square-foot digital facility is more than two years from completion, but, at the end of March, the network will broadcast the first of 100 events to be aired in HDTV this year. Then the network will turn its attention squarely to the new facility, with the goal of having an HD version of Sportscenter
on the air by second quarter 2004 and the entire facility completed a year later.

For now, the burden of the future falls on ESPN's field operations and the truck companies that help with field ops.

"They're busier than a flock of seagulls on the first day of spring," says Chuck Pagano, ESPN senior vice president of technology, engineering and operations.

Rehearsals for the HD coverage will begin in March, he says, with the HD transponder being lit up early in that month and HD colorbars hitting the skies.

ESPN will handle HD events with one truck. "We'll produce in HDTV, bring it back in HD and do a downconversion for the normal channel, and then pipe out the rest as HD," says Pagano. Some events may be handled differently, especially larger productions.

Pagano says offering the HD content makes sense today, especially with blossoming TV-set sales and the falling prices of flat-screen televisions.

The impact of the launch scenario on ESPN's facilities in Bristol, Conn., isn't that large, according to Pagano, because most of the content will be an upconversion. "It's almost impossible to get an HD facility up and running in that time frame, so we're going to upconvert a majority of the ESPN signal for viewing in a different aspect ratio and better quality than 4:3 NTSC."

As for the digital facility itself, planning and equipment decisions are still being made and equipment contracts beginning to be finalized. It will feature three production-size control rooms, four edit-control rooms, and three studios measuring between 3,400 and 9,200 square feet. There will also be an ingest theater, where about 50 people will watch and tag with metadata the more than 200 hours of content brought in every day.

"It's not the technology that is the daunting part," Pagano says. "It's really the cultural, educational and philosophical paradigm shift that people will have in going to those tools."

His goal is to create a nonlinear, file-based facility with pipes big enough for delivering files, heightening the collaborative and creative processes.

"We'll be going to an enterprise-wide computer system for video production and distribution within our facilities," he says. "In the late spring or early summer, we'll begin a pilot system to get a better understanding of some of the variables that will impact workflow and people."

This will be the first major overhaul for ESPN's facilities. Pagano says that, until recently, the technology he wanted to use was not stable or robust enough to support the magnitude of ESPN's content.