ESPN Readies West Coast Wing

More than 30 ESPN engineers are busy this week putting the finishing touches on a new Los Angeles production center that will give the cable sports giant a West Coast studio presence and also serve as a virtual extension of the network's massive technical headquarters in Bristol, Conn. The facility goes live on April 6 with the 1 a.m. ET edition of SportsCenter, which will now be broadcast regularly from the site.

The high-definition facility, part of the massive “L.A. Live” sports and entertainment complex adjacent to the Staples Center, features three production control rooms, two master control rooms, eight craft-edit suites, a music room, a voiceover room and two studios totaling more than 12,300 square feet. ESPN's owned-and-operated L.A.-based radio station will also be relocating to a building adjacent to the new facility.

Don't fear the future

To future-proof the L.A. operation against technology advances, ESPN has designed the facility to support the 1080-line-progressive-scan (1080p) HD format at 60 frames per second (fps), which ESPN and other networks believe they will eventually use to produce content. While 1080p is still in its nascent stages as a broadcast format and 1080p production equipment is sparse, ESPN has installed a 3-gigabit-per-second routing infrastructure in L.A. and is getting as much beta-stage production gear as it can, such as prototype 1080p cameras.

Chuck Pagano, ESPN's executive VP of technology, says the network isn't in that different a position with 1080p now than it was back in 2004, when it was building its Digital Center in Bristol based on the 720-line-progressive (720p) HD format instead of the more established 1080-line interlace (1080i).

“There's a lot that remains to be seen,” Pagano says. “But when we first decided to go 720p, nobody had 720p equipment in the pipeline, and back in 2004, not much worked coming out of the box. We're always open to taking risks for fans and customers, to deliver the highest-quality [images] for sports.”

Whether ESPN or any other major programmer will actually produce and deliver content in 1080p/60 fps in the next five years is “the $100,000 question,” Pagano admits. He notes that some international programmers, such as Globo TV in Brazil, are also building 1080-capable plants. Moreover, Pagano thinks the recent influx of 1080p HDTV sets and Blu-ray optical disc players, which can currently be used to show movies in the 1080p/24 fps format, will eventually raise the quality bar on the live production end and force cable operators to roll out set-tops capable of receiving 1080p/60 fps signals.

“Cable's in an advantaged position, as they have the pipes available to facilitate it,” he says.

Key gear in the new Los Angeles plant includes Calrec Sigma audio consoles, an Evertz 3-gig audio/video router, Grass Valley K2 playout servers, Sony studio cameras and LCD monitors, a Riedel intercom system, and Quantel's production video servers and Dino wide area network (WAN) collaborative production link.

An extension of bristol

The Quantel Dino system will allow ESPN to use the same ingest and editing tools in Los Angeles that it uses to create highlights in Bristol. It will also allow production staff in both locations to seamlessly share content. ESPN has two 10 gigabit-per-second fiber links between L.A. and Bristol to support a constant flow of content; according to Pagano, the Quantel software will make the L.A. site seem like just another spoke on the existing production network in Bristol. An editor in Bristol, for example, can store a file on the Quantel server that could be instantly accessed by another editor in Los Angeles.

“It's just an extension of the video and content network that is facilitated around the campus here,” Pagano says. “The whole philosophy was just to extend Bristol into L.A., and L.A. into Bristol, by having twin 10-gigabit-per-second pipes. We have so much content, it just adds to both value chains.”

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