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ESPN Goes Digital, Offers Ops Help

ESPN last week said it plans to offer cable operators digital feeds for four of its networks next year, and it will provide affiliates with $15 million worth of free headend equipment to help ease the conversion.

The sports-programming giant is looking to improve the signal quality of its networks and assume the chore of switching its affiliates to alternate programming during sports-league required local and regional blackouts.

Four networks-ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Classic and ESPNews-will transmit digitally using Motorola Corp.'s DigiCipher II Uplink digital compression system and its new DSR-4500X DigiCipher II Integrated Receiver/Decoder, or IRD.

ESPN officials stressed, however, that they will also continue to provide analog feeds for cable operators that don't want to take the digital transmissions.

ESPN, which plans to debut its digital feeds on March 15, 2001, also will provide free headend equipment to systems that make up 99 percent of the U.S. cable universe. By doing this, it hopes make the switch as seamless and easy as possible, said Sean Bratches, ESPN's senior vice president of affiliate sales and marketing.

In addition to improving signal quality, the digital launch will also provide a turnkey solution for switching local cable systems to alternate programming during blackouts.

"This will provide us with better reliability on the platform, and better control," Bratches said.

ESPN has started notifying its affiliates of its digital plans and explaining how the necessary headend gear will be distributed. The network will give its affiliates one free IRD, per network, for every system that serves at least 400 subscribers. ESPN estimates that number will exceed 6,500 systems and could amount to a $15 million outlay on its part.

"It's just the right decision," Bratches said. "We're being aggressive in ways to provide value to our customers."

The 6,500-system estimate only includes those systems now receiving analog signals directly from the programmer, according to ESPN. It does not include those who access the signals from national digital platforms, such as AT&T Corp.'s Headend In the Sky or Time Warner Cable's Athena service.

Frank Hughes, senior vice president of programming for the National Cable Television Cooperative, lauded ESPN for its decision to supply the IRDs, which sell for about $1,800 each, to operators at no charge.

"I applaud their efforts," he said.

ESPN's approach contrasts with how USA Networks' Sci Fi Channel handled introduction of a West Coast digital feed earlier this year. It initially wanted even small operators to ante up and buy the IRDs themselves so they could take down that signal, Hughes said.

Some small systems that lack the capital for that kind of investment threatened to drop Sci Fi, claiming the terms of their contract had changed. As a result, Sci Fi Channel permitted those complaining West Coast operators to continue carrying the service's analog East Coast feed, Hughes said.

Hughes said he'd like to ask ESPN how long it plans to continue carrying analog feeds of its networks.

"For a long time," Bratches replied. He pointed out, for example, that ESPN has a robust C-band business that still takes only analog signals.

Once the digital transition is competed, operators will no longer be required to manually switch between ESPN feeds because of local and national blackout rules. Currently, many small, non-automated systems forced to black out one game from ESPN's baseball doubleheader telecasts, for example, were relegated to carrying the service's "B" feed for the night, which often offered less attractive programming, such as lower-profile games.

With the new Motorola equipment, ESPN will automatically switch the systems from the secondary "B" feed to its primary "A" feed for the second game of a doubleheader.

All digital switching to and from alternate programming on ESPN and ESPN2 will be executed by the DSR-4500X, under the control of ESPN's global uplink facility in Bristol, Conn.

This is all less of an issue with some NCTC members, according to Hughes, since they are in smaller markets and blackout situations are more likely in big DMAs.

ESPN also said that the digital service will, in the future, permit cable operators to offer market-specific options such as SAP audio service or enhanced television.

ESPN plans to use PanAmSat satellite Galaxy 1, transponder 9, for its digital transmission, while maintaining the analog feed of ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNews on Galaxy 5, transponders 9 and 14, and Galaxy 10R, transponder 21, respectively. ESPN Classic, the only ESPN network currently transmitted solely in digital, will move from Galaxy 10 to Galaxy 1, transponder 9.

R. Thomas Umstead contributed to this story.