ESPN uses Pixel Power to brand World Cup 3-D telecasts

As ESPN viewers around the country watched the World Cup matches live from South Africa in stereoscopic 3-D, a master control operator sitting in a small room in Building 13 at the sports network's Bristol, CT, campus electronically inserted 3-D commercials and other graphic elements manually to enhance the broadcasts.

Televising one game in 3-D most days of the four-week tournament (for a total of 25 games in 3-D), ESPN accepted live 1080i HD feeds via a dedicated fiber line, with satellite backup, from World Cup host broadcaster HBS and used a Pixel Power BrandMaster master control switcher and Abekas Mira server (controlled by a DNF Control device) before sending the game out to the various satellite and cable carriage partners.

Jonathan Pannaman, senior director of engineering at ESPN, said the system is part of ESPN's 3-D technology lab, where the company is testing a variety of equipment for future use. The BrandMaster system is part of that evaluation and testing process and served as a temporary solution for the World Cup.

He said that as ESPN gets more into 3-D for the long term, a permanent master control suite would be established in another part of the campus and used for other 3-D broadcasts that the network will deliver.

3-D master control: A work in progress

ESPN is still deciding how best to perform master control operations for 3-D in the most cost-efficient way. Master control operations (commercials and graphics insertion) for other ESPN 3-D telecasts, such as the recent MLB Home Run Derby, have been accomplished onboard a mobile production truck (provided by Game Creek Video or NEP Productions) on-site.

Pannaman said inserting ads on-site simplifies the process; however, ESPN will continue to test and investigate how to make the best use of the BrandMaster system in the future.

The Pixel Power system's template-based graphics architecture made it easy for the master control operators to generate all of the World Cup graphics created in Bristol. These were added to the existing set of graphics created and added in South Africa by the host broadcaster.

Pixel Power’s BrandMaster

The BrandMaster 3D series master control switcher, the next generation 3-D stereoscopic version of its master control lineup, was introduced at NAB in April. Pannaman and a few colleagues saw a demo of the system at NAB and found the features, ease of use and 3-D image quality offered by Pixel Power's 3-D Clarity CG and BrandMaster system notable.

The 3-D version of the BrandMaster includes a dedicated master control hardware panel with dedicated rows for program presets. There are also a series of legend rows that help identify sources coming from the router, and a row of TFT displays can display images of graphic and video assets on a particular button before the operator cues it up. These can be configured to show the exact effect or associated move.

The entire system's electronics is 3RU in height, making it ideally suited to playout and production environments with limited spaces. It can also be used to remap all master control interfaces, signals and displays to a channel with a single button press.

A little master control goes a long way

In Bristol, the system is set up with the interface screen above the hardware panel, showing audio meters that are used to monitor and adjust levels on preview and program streams. There are also controls to adjust the depth of the stereoscopic images, which can be customized in different ways.

During the World Cup games, two operators worked in shifts to operate the Pixel Power system manually, with no automation employed. They would come out of commercial breaks through the BrandMaster system and dissolve to the Mira server to roll the commercials using a DNF Controls panel.

ESPN televised one game each day. Between games, they had a loop of 3-D graphics coming off the Mira server, which displayed graphics, text and audio from the BrandMaster system to promote the next game.

The operators also used a Pixel Power Management console to edit template-based graphics within BrandMaster on the fly when necessary. Most graphics were prebuilt before the game started, which was done by simply double clicking on a selected graphic inside BrandMaster. The system displayed the graphic full screen to allow the operators to preview their changes. A “field” feature within BrandMaster then allows them to edit every field within that frame, without prior knowledge of how to create graphics necessary. Once they finished making changes, it was automatically published to the system for output into the final program stream in the correct aspect ratio, 3-D image convergence, resolution and font style.

More 3-D graphics to come

The World Cup was broadcast in 1080i (a first for ESPN) because that was the format provided by the host broadcaster. Since then, Pixel Power engineers have converted the unit to 720p via a software setting change on the system, so it's ready to take on more productions.

Pannaman said ESPN is happy with the way the World Cup went, although he couldn't give actual viewer numbers, and how the Pixel Power system performed. There's on-going discussion about incorporating the Pixel Power 3-D master control system for upcoming 3-D telecasts.