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ESPN Flips the HD Switch

If there is a hue in the visible color spectrum that does not appear in ESPN's new hi-def "Sports Center" set, it's not immediately apparent. The 5,000-square-foot set came alive like a disco floor full of dancing Christmas trees last Monday, when ESPN President George Bodenheimer and Connecticut Gov. John Rowland performed a ceremonial "digital ribbon cutting" by fingering a touch pad on the anchor desk.

"All these millions of dollars to make Chris Berman look thinner," marveled the governor, taking a crack at the veteran host of "Sports Center."

Even with one of five HD studio cams pointed his way, Berman will have his work cut out for him to not be upstaged by the set. Indeed, it hardly seems possible that a sports highlights program could do justice to the most technologically advanced television set anywhere. A triangular, 18-foot, floor-to-ceiling tower of massive, convex, Barco back-projection, hi-res capable monitors dominates one wall of the studio like a huge fireplace chimney in a Rocky Mountain mansion. Behind the anchor desk, graphics, logos and still shots materialize out of the fog on a backdrop of Belgium glass with three, synchronized back-projectors trained on it.

Then there's the floor.

Long gone are the days when bad, beige short shag was plenty good for "Sports Center." The new floor is a product of Disney Imagineering. Beneath it is a grid of 4,000 fiber-optic lights that can project a full image, a racing trail of energy or a light show synced to the "Sports Center" theme.

After the crowd of 100 or so folks recovered from the retinal shock of the set lighting, they were led on tour of the rest of ESPN's all-HD 120,000-square-foot Digital Center. Stop No. 2 was Studio B, a 9,000-square-foot black room with a concrete floor that would have looked more like a commuter jet hangar than a studio, if not for the 700 light drops. As with much of the facility, Studio B is still in development. ESPN's vice president of systems engineering and electronic support said the space could be destined for a virtual set.

Like Studio B, the screening room is still a work in progress, but the finished product will represent the breadth of ESPN's leap from the old Broadcast Center to the new Digital Center. The old screening room was the threshing floor for new hires, where 30 or so entry-level employees peered into tiny monitors in a dark, cramped room while frantically scribbling highlight notes on legal pads--processing 220 hours of content per 24-hour period. The new screening room is a well-lit, lofty space that will have 65 ergonomically designed workstations equipped with flat-panel monitors and keyboards, all networked to the Quantel server system.

Long after the glitz and glamour of celebrity proximity wore off the civilian guests, a small clutch of technology reporters happily followed ESPN's director of engineering special projects, Ted Szypulski, into the guts of the facility. In a room full of row after row of equipment racks, an engineer from Grass Valley was busy preparing for the debut of the multiple Trinex HD routing system, which was scheduled for baptism at 11 p.m. that night when "Sports Center" went live in HD, from the new studio, for the first time.

Szypulski noted how the millions of routing I/Os were color-coded like Monopoly property cards, to make them easier to locate. Likewise with the 1,325 miles of cable in the facility--all are color-coded according to respective purpose. HD cable is violent, for example; SD is orange, digital audio is yellow and so on. To further differentiate cables, Belden's media twist, a flat, white cable, color-coded with a stripe, was used for computer networking. Even the cable trays are color coded--yellow for broadcast, blue for nonbroadcast. All "air critical" cables are labeled as such.

Color coding was also applied to the dual uninterruptible power system (UPS) system, represented by red and blue electrical outlets throughout the facility. Much of the layout of the facility itself was done with power redundancy in mind. Power sources were staggered for a series of edit suites, for example, because people have a tendency to go to the first available suite when they walk into a hallway, Szypulski said. With the staggered-power approach, it's less likely that everyone's work will fry in the event of an outage. Production control rooms are powered similarly, while the master control rooms are powered so they'll always remain "half alive," Szypulski said.

Then there's the floor.

The upper level facility floor may not generate a musical light show, but the engineers at ESPN couldn't be more proud if it did. The layer of sealed concrete is criss-crossed with flat strips of copper that connect to other flat strips of copper lining the equipment racks and other surfaces of the building, grounding everything and eliminating digital noise.

"This," Szypulski said, "is what you can do when you start from the ground up."

The goal at ESPN is to eventually do everything in hi-def, meaning ESPN HD will become the flagship channel, and basic-cable ESPN will become the downconverted sibling. Network executives have said they expect that a little more than half of ESPN-produced content will be done in HD by next spring.

ESPN execs are fervent about their content being a primary driver for consumer hi-def adoption, but they are also cagey about just how many households subscribe to ESPN HD. The network is available to 70 million cable homes - in no small part due to its Disney parentage--but not all of those homes subscribe to HD tiers, and not all cable companies divulge the number of HD subscribers they do have. Cablevision, which recently added ESPN HD, does indicate that 70,000 of its 3 million subscribers receive the HD tier.

As far as what's next for ESPN and its high-tech campus in bucolic Bristol, Conn.--a new 125,000-square-foot office building where the group's Boston and New Jersey offices will be consolidated. Groundbreaking is scheduled for this fall.