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The Team Player

When ESPN announced plans to build a 120,000-square-foot digital facility at its Bristol, Conn., headquarters earlier this year, it was the equivalent of making a blockbuster baseball trade that zooms a baseball team into contention.

Certainly, when it comes to technically impressive broadcast facilities, ESPN's new digs will be major league. The new home will not only house standard-definition operations for ESPN Classic, ESPN2, and ESPN News, it will also propel the mothership ESPN network into the rarefied air of HDTV.

There will be little doubt about the impact of HD when the new facility is completed in June and ESPN's flagship program SportsCenter
begins running in high-def.

ESPN's HD commitment also places Chuck Pagano, ESPN senior vice president of technology, engineering and operations, high on the list of innovators. Now in his 25th year—he began as a technical director—he has always been tasked with ensuring that the technology side of the house kept pace with the demands of one of TV's most recognizable group of networks. He isn't alone in the task: Approximately 650 ESPN employees report to Pagano, handling everything from craft services to camera operation and satellite transmission.

"It's a special community of professionals that just know how to work together, get it done, and do some fun stuff," says Pagano of life at ESPN. "Egos are at a minimum, and there's just a desire to do the best possible job every night, delivering the content and highlights that our customers and fans demand from us."

His work on the new facility began in 1998 when ESPN purchased the land behind its current facility and started planning for expansion. Plans were drawn up, but, in January 2003, those plans changed when ESPN announced the launch of ESPN-HD. Three months later, on March 30, the high-def network officially debuted and, since then, has broadcast nearly 150 events in HD. But the service will really take off in June when SportsCenter
hits HD.

"The sheer response of our fans and our customers made it clear that HD was becoming a hot application," says Pagano. "It was also a wake-up call that we had one shot to do this facility, so let's do it right and build an all-HD facility to prepare ourselves for the future."

Pagano set his team to figuring out how to make the move to HD without hindering the other technical needs at its new digs. "We did have a time when we finally decided to hold off and see how we could do the facility in HD so it could support both the HD and SD markets," he says. "It was a wonderful experience watching a whole bunch of smart people get together and come up with some real creative thinking and also get the task done."

A large part of those plans relied on BBC Technology for media management and Quantel for storage and editing systems. The goal is to build a facility that, in the long term, will make it possible for anyone in the department to access any content on the server from his or her workstation. It will have seven production-control rooms, four master-control rooms, and three studios in addition to 19 edit suites. For now, however, the focus is squarely on SportsCenter HD.

"We've been playing with our pilot program," says Pagano, "and I'm glad to say that everything has been coming out as it was hoped for."

The challenge, he adds, has extended beyond technology to workflow and understanding how employees approach their minute-by-minute tasks so that the facility can meet those needs. It's all coming together. Now, Pagano says, "the light at the end of the tunnel isn't another train coming down on us. We're starting to see the real long-term potential value."

One thing he and the team have learned already is that going digital isn't easier than working in analog. The problem, he says, is that you're no longer trying to figure out a problem that is sitting in front of you. Often, he says, it's sitting somewhere on a computer screen.

"I can always get my hand on a videotape," he explains. "But, when you have a file sitting out there in the 'ether' that you can't find, that's when you get into the complexity and challenging part of digital."

Despite the complexity of the current undertaking, Pagano's approach embodies the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid. He says it's also about making sure he focuses on his main task, which is to make sure those who work for him have the tools required to do their jobs.

"I work for these guys; it's not the other way around," he says. "My job is always to fight for projects and justify them."

Learning those new skills took some time. Pagano has a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from the University of Hartford, and his biggest challenge, he says, was learning to get out of the way of his engineering team and become more of a cheerleader. "I keep enough fingers in the kitchen to know what they're doing, but I also take a good, healthy look in the mirror to see the people around me, to trust them, and to let them do their craft."

When Pagano thinks back to the early days at ESPN, he recalls a network that had about 50 employees who didn't even know if they were going to get paid at the end of the week. Time flies when you're having fun.

"I turned 50 in February, and it dawned on me that I've been here for half of my life," he says. "I'm also a fan of psychology and trying to figure out what my organizational commitment is. All I can say is, because I was here in the very beginning, it's an extension of my family."