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A Slam-Dunk for Videoconferencing

Baseball may be America's favorite pastime, but it certainly isn't America's favorite professional-sports draft, ranking a distant third to both football and basketball. The NFL and NBA drafts have become events worthy of wall-to-wall TV coverage, and that coverage lends itself to the use of innovative tools to enrich the telecast.

For the recent NBA draft, ESPN used Wire One's Glowpoint videoconferencing service and Polycom's ViewStation FX equipment to enable ESPN's talent in Bristol, Conn., to talk with and see NBA team personnel at the 14 teams' draft headquarters across the country. The system, previously used for NFL drafts, allowing ESPN analysts and experts to ask NAB executives the one question asked again and again on draft day: "What were you thinking?"

According to Dan Steir, ESPN coordinating producer, remote production, cost saving is one of the biggest benefits of the system, but the gain in the quality of videoconferencing technology has also driven its use. "It's literally just a phone call, but the lesser quality is of minor consequence to viewers," he says, "and that should always be the main concern."

Glowpoint works as a service provider, hammering out the details between the long-distance–access providers and the last-mile providers to close the loop between ESPN's Bristol headquarters and the 14 arenas. The ViewStation FX camera system has a maximum bandwidth of 2 Mb/s and a 65-degree field of view with pan, tilt and zoom functionality.

Blair DeSio, senior program manager for Glowpoint, says the advantage the technology offers vs. something like ISDN is that it allows ESPN to react quickly without having to wait for connectivity. "ISDN connection times can be cumbersome and cause problems in a broadcast environment. With this system, you pick up the phone, and you're connected."

To connect to the teams' draft headquarters, according to Steir, ESPN accesses an Internet site that gives almost instantaneous access to the remote locations. Once Bristol is connected, it's basically a matter of getting the team personnel in front of the camera.

The 14 locations are tied into six circuits at ESPN headquarters, which bring the video into the ESPN plant. Two of the circuits are for redundancy, and the network connecting the 14 sites also has redundancy.

"If we have any problems with the last-mile connection, we can switch over to the other circuits," says DeSio. "We discovered a potential risk and are doing what we can to make sure it goes away."

He credits equipment improvements with raising the video quality to "business quality" over the past couple of years. Although it's short of broadcast quality, ESPN still sees it as good enough to broadcast. "When we did the NFL draft, there was a slight noticeable difference when the videoconference material was side by side with the broadcast material, but it was nothing that would prevent it from being broadcast quality."

Cost benefits extend beyond eliminating satellite costs, which, for an event like an NBA draft, could require five hours of satellite time. And cutting down on the number of feeds that need to be dealt with in the Bristol satellite receiving area eases the burden on that staff. There are also technology and personnel cost savings.