The News at ESPNews Is HD

When ESPN launches the sports news network ESPNews HD on March 30, the information innovation may attract the most admiration.

ESPNews HD, the sports giant's third high-definition network following ESPN and ESPN 2, will not only offer a prettier picture, but will also deliver additional news and statistics to viewers by placing a bevy of graphics within the widescreen, 16:9 HD picture.

The hi-def version of ESPNews will broadcast from a 1,300-square-foot studio that is enclosed by glass and located in the middle of the ESPN “super newsroom” on the network's Bristol, Conn., campus.

ESPN has been conducting rehearsals in the new studio for the past few weeks to check out the equipment and get talent comfortable in the new space. While he is excited to step up to HD's picture quality, ESPNews anchor David Lloyd says the biggest improvement will be in the new network's graphics, which he calls a “quantum leap” forward.

While ESPNews has traditionally had a “Bottom Line” graphic with continuous updates of sports news and scores, the high-definition network will use the extra real estate of the 16:9 HD picture to deliver a new graphic, the “HD Sideline,” that will wrap around the top, left and bottom of the screen and surround a widescreen—but slightly downsized—high-definition video window.

The “HD Sideline” graphic, designed and generated using Vizrt software, will display textual information, head shots, news and scores, including additional information not available to standard-def viewers. But as part of the HD launch, the standard-definition version of ESPNews is also getting a redesigned “Bottom Line” graphic that will present more text information and also include aesthetic improvements such as team logos.

Eventually ESPN hopes to be able to do real-time e-mail messages from viewers, perhaps responding to opinions of an ESPN host or guest. There will also be a red-colored alert line for major breaking news.

“It gives the program a more contemporary look and feel, and more flexibility to enhance the storytelling,” says ESPN senior coordinating producer David Roberts.

ESPNews HD isn't the first network to exploit hi-def's extra real estate to offer expanded graphics—CNBC HD and Fox Business Channel HD already do that—but ESPN's treatment, which maintains a true 16:9 HD picture, is unique.

Stats for the HD fanatic

According to Bryan Burns, ESPN VP of strategic business planning and development, ESPN made its decision on the graphic look more than a year ago and based it on the increasing screen size of the HD displays consumers are buying. As Burns notes, the smaller HD picture that will be offered by ESPNews HD is “still a pretty big piece of real estate” on HD displays 40 inches and up. Moreover, the additional statistics that the HD network will offer should appeal to viewers participating in fantasy sports leagues.

To be sure, ESPNews will still deliver a high-quality 720p image. Key gear in ESPNews HD's new studio includes five Grass Valley LDK 4000 cameras with Fujinon lenses, including one on a jib; Vinten Radamec robotic camera pedestals; Autoscript teleprompters; and an array of flat-panel displays.

There are two anchor desks, with a hidden cubby off to the side of each one where researchers can work and pass along quick updates, such as game scores, by hand to the anchors. There is also a separate stand-up area that will be used to introduce special programming.

The new studio links by fiber to a control room in ESPN's 120,000-square-foot “Digital Center,” the technical hub for ESPN's myriad domestic and international networks. The control room has been overhauled for the ESPNews HD launch but is equipped with a similar complement of equipment as the control room for ESPN's SportsCenter, including a Grass Valley Kalypso production switcher, Calrec digital audio console and a virtual monitor wall driven by Evertz multi-image display processors.

However, the control room for ESPN News HD has an additional dedicated monitoring area for the graphics operator to help produce in-game highlights, and the virtual monitor wall consists of a variety of LCD flat-panel displays instead of the Christie rear-projection monitors used in the SportsCenter control room.

Mitch Rymanowski, ESPN VP of technology and engineering, says that the network is increasingly shifting to LCDs over CRT and rear-projection monitors (for their lower power consumption and operating temperature.

Like its sister networks, ESPNews HD will benefit from the file-based production system in the Digital Center. The production staff in the 57-seat “screening room” in the Digital Center use Quantel servers and editing systems, in conjunction with AP's ENPS newsroom computer software, to record some 200 hours of programming each day and create a mind-boggling 700 highlight clips, including the in-game highlights featured by ESPNews.

When it launches at 8 am EDT on March 30, ESPNews HD will be simulcast for one hour on ESPN HD, with half-hour simulcasts planned for later in the day on ESPN2 HD to promote the new service. ESPN says the new network will be available to 3.2 million homes at launch, compared to 17 million subscribers for ESPN HD, which launched in March 2003, and 12 million for ESPN2 HD, which launched in January 2005. ESPN execs are hopeful that carriage for the network will grow quickly this year, to perhaps 20 million subs.

Set-top research shows increased ratings for the high-definition versions of ESPN and ESPN2, and Burns expects the same for ESPNews. Either way, he considers going HD to be inevitable for any cable network planning on a long-term future.

“In a year or two, I don't think you want to be running a channel that's not in HD,” he says. “You're going to be out there in no-man's land.”