Razzle Dazzle

ESPN redefined sports TV. And June 7, it makes history. Again. That's when it begins broadcasting 13 hours of SportsCenter
daily in HDTV. And it comes courtesy of a new set that promises to dazzle audiences.

How dazzling?

ESPN enlisted the help of Disney's Imagineering, and it didn't disappoint. The set incorporates 5,000 fiber-optic lights in the floor and flashes them in sync with new SportsCenter
theme music. ESPN hopes it will do for HDTV what Bonanza
did for color TV: give people a reason to buy HD sets. It will also improve the viewing experience for standard-definition viewers.

Flash aside, the real story is behind the scenes.

will be the first program to broadcast from ESPN's new 120,000-square-foot digital facility—a state-of-the-art plant that is arguably the most advanced in the world.

"All our entities will access video, audio, and interviews instantaneously," explains ESPN and ABC Sports President George Bodenheimer.

It took 18 months of planning once HDTV entered the equation, but the results are worth it. "I can't imagine making a change that's bigger than this," says Ted Szypulski, director of ESPN engineering special projects. "It's HD, it has surround sound, it's tapeless, it has nonlinear editing. This is huge for us."

The facility is based on Quantel's generationQ storage and editing system and BBC Technology's Colledia asset-management system.

The main SportsCenter
studio offers more than just bells and whistles. Thirteen Barco HD rear projectors and 11 LCD panels provide sizzle and can be controlled with the push of a button.

Adding extra spice to the broadcasts are three "privacy-glass" panels located behind the anchors. They can instantly turn opaque, making them suitable as a backdrop for over-the-shoulder graphics and animations.

There are three separate pairs of panels, each with its own video channel, providing maximum flexibility for the graphics and animations created with VizRT software. Pinnacle Deko 3000HD character generators will be used to handle scoreboards.

At the heart of the facility sits 72 TB of Quantel generationQ video servers, enough to store more than 4,000 hours of content, and a 100-Gbps network tying all the editing, graphics, and newsroom computers together. "This is the world's largest TiVo for the world's largest sports fan," says Chuck Pagano, senior vice president of technology, engineering, and operations.

When the facility is fully functional this fall, sports events will be ingested into the servers, complete with metadata: team names, dates, times, and rosters. Once the games are on the server, the fun begins.

With the new system, tape decks will be replaced by 68 workstations, each with a flat-screen TV and two computers. One computer is tied into the Colledia system, where editors can enter game information tagged to the video file. The other is for e-mail or Internet service.

Production assistants (PAs) sit at the stations and assemble highlights that tell the story of the game. Aiding in that task will be SportsTicker, an ESPN-owned company based in New Jersey that supplies metadata, like pitch counts for baseball or down-and-yardage-to-go info for football.

That frees the PAs to focus on adding color information, such as "Jeter smiles" or "fans mocking Kobe," giving depth to the metadata library.

Szypulski says the information resembles Post-It notes. Once annotations are in the system, editors in the 19 edit rooms (seven with Quantel eQ editors and 12 with Quantel qEdit Pro systems) can add interstitials, sound effects, and graphics to the video. "They'll have pointers to a clip so that editors can look at the descriptions and jump to those points immediately," he explains. "Then they can decide if they want to put it into the highlight package."

ESPN hopes this type of time saving will trounce the competition. Sports coverage is about immediacy, which is what the system delivers.

"With the Quantel system, we can ingest, annotate, edit, and air the same media at the same time," says Szypulski. "You can't do that with videotape."

Another boon to using the Quantel editing system: ESPN can air a play before it's completed. For example, Major League Baseball has granted ESPN the right to air home runs while the game is in progress.

If the assistant watching the game knows that Barry Bonds just hit a "no-doubt-about-it" home run, he or she can cue the producer. And the producer can begin airing the at-bat before Bonds even crosses home plate.

The facility will have a number of control rooms, including four production-control rooms, 10 master-control rooms (long-range plans call for moving a number of ESPN's networks into the new facility), and three integration-control rooms. The ICRs are a combination of a master- and production-control room, useful for remote events that need commercials inserted.

Each room has two six-channel Quantel servers, a Thomson Grass Valley Kalypso production switcher, and access to AP's ENPS newsroom system to handle switching and tracking of on-air events. On the display side, nine 70-inch Christie rear-projection monitors use the Evertz MVP multi-imaging system to monitor up to 222 incoming feeds.

"Sony monitors are still the best for colorimetry, but the Christie monitors are re-configurable by the show and by the hour," says Kevin Stolworthy, vice president, production operations and creative services. With both widescreen and 4:3 content coming in and going out, that's an important capability.

For now, this vast effort, known as the Digital Conversion project, is still in the build-out stages. Next Monday, the new SportsCenter
studio and production-control room will be lit, but the rest of the facility remains in preseason. Employees are still running through the playbook.

One thing is clear: The bar for studio facilities has been raised.