09.08.2004 12:00 AM
Hitting the Quarter Century Mark
ESPN Turns 25

BRISTOL, CONN.

In some places, one's 25th birthday signifies a decrease in car insurance rates and a debut into real, honest-to-goodness adulthood. For the folks at ESPN, the network's 25th anniversary marks the end of an era, but ESPN's only just begun.

It's difficult to pinpoint whether ESPN is responsible for the "supersizing" of sports, or whether the network has simply managed to remain on the cutting edge of sports reporting as the industry responds to the proliferation of entertainment; everywhere; the scenario is similar to the proverbial "chicken and egg." One thing is certain, however--ESPN has arguably played the most significant role in shaping the "sports as entertainment" concept, and it continues to wield enormous influence over how sports and the personalities behind them are portrayed to the general public.

The ESPN machine, in which ABC, Inc. has an 80-percent stake (The Hearst Corp. holds the other 20 percent), is massive indeed: Currently, ESPN, Inc. encompasses seven domestic television networks, including ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN HD (the network's high-definition simulcast of ESPN), ESPN Regional Television, ESPN International (which is comprised of 25 international networks and syndication), ESPN Radio, ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine, SportsTicker, ESPN Enterprises, ESPN Zones (the company's themed restaurant chain), and newer entities such as ESPN Broadband, ESPN Wireless, ESPN Video-on-Demand, ESPN Interactive and ESPN PPV.

TECH PIONEER

Technologically, ESPN has never shied away from innovation. Not one year after its birth, the network introduced the electronic cut-in format, enabling programmers to "cut away" from one game to display live coverage of another. Throughout its history, ESPN has developed a number of specialty point-of-view cameras that have given audiences an insider's perspective on sports action. Thanks to the network, viewers all know what NASCAR drivers, jockeys, hockey players, umpires and referees--as well as inanimate objects such as goal posts and the ceilings of hockey arenas--see during a race or a game.

"As far as bringing new technology into our telecasts, it's about whether or not it's going to enhance the viewing experience," said Jed Drake, senior vice president and executive producer for remote production at ESPN. "We spend a good amount of time thinking through what these systems will actually mean for our viewers."

GOING DIGITAL

In March 2003, ESPN launched ESPN HD, a 24-hour, high-definition simulcast of ESPN in the 720p format. The launch of the new station required the construction of a brand-new digital facility (see "The House that HD Built," June 9, 2004, for more information on the project).

"Everything associated with [the construction of the new facility] was a challenge for us, because when we started engineering the project, not many people were doing it in the 720 progressive format," said Chuck Pagano, ESPN's senior vice president of technology, engineering and operations. "I am so glad we did, because it's a wonderful format for our product, which is namely sports with a lot of motion."

Although the digital format may be better, it's definitely required ESPN's engineers to be flexible, Pagano admitted. "Digital is not easier; it's more complex," he said. "You must learn to do television in a different manner, and that's not instinctive to people that have been in television for a long time. Digital requires a more computer-generated environment."

Technicians, therefore, must learn how to carry out their jobs differently. "The issue isn't really technological, it's about people," Pagano observed. "It takes time to go through the shift and maintain excellence. Trying to learn this all at once is next to impossible, so you have to stage it accordingly. It takes time for people to get comfortable with working in this computerized environment."

At the end of the day, however, it's worth it, Pagano believes. "I think you get much more compelling content and better stories told," he said.

In celebration of its 25th birthday (which officially took place on Sept. 7, 2004), ESPN launched a formidable programming effort--dubbed ESPN25--almost two years before the big day. On May 31st, the festivities began with "The Moments," a daily countdown listing the 100 most memorable moments in sports between 1979 (the year ESPN was born) to 2004. From May to September, the network aired "Then and Now," a kick-off special examining the evolution of sports from 1979 to now; "The Headlines," a 13-episode series counting down the 25 biggest sports stories that surfaced during the last quarter century; "Who's #1?" a series highlighting a different "top 25" list each week, such as top games, plays, controversies and worst teams; "SportsCenter: The Next 25 Years, a discussion of what's in store; and ESPN's "Silver Anniversary Special," a two-hour program that completes the entire celebration with a summation of the company's progress over the last 25 years. In total, ESPN25 comprised 32 hours of programming.

KILLER BARS

John Dahl, executive producer, ESPN25/ESPN Classic, oversaw approximately 50 team members that were dedicated to this project. "We did almost a year's worth of research before we even started voting, because there were 15 lists involved, and the fans voted on a couple," he said. "It has been about a 22-month project, all told, by the end of it. It's been a major commitment."

The archival footage that was prevalent throughout the special programming was not converted into high-definition format for ESPN HD, Dahl explained. "The columns come up, but we can't convert them to HD," he said. "It's like it is now in SportsCenter: when there is footage that is not HD--like certain game highlights--the 'killer bars' will come up on one side."

A minor technical challenge, when one considers everything else the network has accomplished. Pagano mused that what began as a pilot project grew into a growing concern that shows no sign of stopping anytime soon. "It has been an incredible journey. No one ever thought that we would become what we are now. It's 25 years later, and I'm not sure where the time went," he marveled. "The technology has gotten more complex, it's better quality and it serves our customers and television in general in a much better fashion. I think the last 25 years are going to be very small in comparison to the next 25 years."


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