By Matt Stump
Multichannel News
 

(This article appears in Multichannel News on June 7, 2004.)

June 7 is a momentous day in Bristol, Conn. In the midst of celebrating its 25th anniversary, sports-programming giant ESPN is taking the wraps off a new, state-of-the-art digital center.

If you spent a year waiting for SportsCenter in HD, that period is at its end. The new digital center houses three HDTV studios totaling 17,000 square feet, the centerpiece of the 120,000-square-foot facility. From that base, ESPN will produce 3,700 hours of programming each year in HD, and in the process become the largest single U.S. supplier of high-definition content.

"It's the largest HD facility in North America," said ESPN vice president of strategic planning and development Bryan Burns.

The 11 p.m. edition of SportsCenter on June 7 will be the first in HD. But over the next several months, the other HD studios inside the digital center will come online.

National Football League pregame programs will kick off in HD on Sept. 12. Baseball Tonight will take its first HD swings next spring. And the wraparound shows from sporting events will get the HD treatment this winter.

"Next year at this time, 60% of the 24-hour day will be full HDTV," he said. "We will start to fill it in very rapidly now."

The man overseeing the construction is senior vice president of technology, engineering and operations Chuck Pagano. The outside world will see more programming in HD. But to Pagano, the conversion to digital brings a host of new features, and challenges.

Moving to digital production allows for more compelling content because the process allows for more eyeballs on each highlights package and more innovation. "Producers are able to collaborate with each other" on the same highlights package, Pagano said.

With tape machines, editing was a singular event: one editor, one tape machine, one game and one highlights package from the view of one human being.

"How we create the content becomes more compelling," he said. "More than one person can add in creative energies for better and more factual content. It's how do we make our storytelling better."

The 68 Quantel servers with 4,000 hours of online disk storage will facilitate the retrieval of past highlights, and make it easier for more producers to tap into the system.

"For a lot of it, it's a first-time effort of this magnitude we're putting together," Pagano said. "The challenge is to customize it for the organization that is going to use it."

And the digital center isn't the only upgrade. Since ESPN launched HDTV in March 2003, the total sports network has upped the on-site production ante. For example, the network handled the 2003 National Hockey League Stanley Cup Finals with one HDTV truck, supplemented by a standard-definition truck for the wraparound segments. But the integration wasn't smooth.

"It didn't work very well, electronically," Burns said. "This year, we had two HD trucks in Tampa and Calgary. To us, it's a double show. But we focus on quality."

The shift to HD for studio content adds many levels of complexity unseen by outsiders. For instance, ESPN is ingesting content from many different sources at many different levels of quality, and rationalizing it for HD.

"We're downstream from everybody else and that makes our job tougher than anybody else," Burns said. The company ingests 175 hours to 200 hours a day of content for programs or highlights packages.

Graphics and crawls also had to be redesigned with HD in mind. "We have an entirely new graphics package. It's going to be drop-dead gorgeous." Burns believes the move to televising the enhanced SportsCenter will provide one more reason for consumers to switch to HD.

"I very seldom get out of the HD channels," he said. "The more we put and the more the viewer is satisfied. It's a see-it-to-believe-it situation."