ESPN Hits the HD Highway

New Format, New BuildingESPN's full-scale plunge into native 720p HD, slated for early 2004, will originate from a brand-new digital production center designed and constructed by HLW International LLP, a 117-year-old, New York-based architecture and engineering firm with a track record in large-scale studio deployments including the Fox Network Center in Los Angeles and the NY1 News and WNBC-TV newsroom facilities in New York.

Constructing the facility from the ground up, as opposed to an overhaul of pre-existing facilities, is always a solid premise, says John Gering, a managing partner of the firm since 1980. "When dealing with a blank piece of paper, [the project] is based strictly on goals and mission statements," he says. "Most existing facilities never meet those goals because the company has grown into them over the years. As people migrate to a new level of technology, they tend not to change the architecture around it."

As a result, they tend to outgrow their real estate, something ESPN was determined to avoid. An 18-month build-out process of the building's exterior was completed late last year. At that time, the project was turned over to the fit-out team, which will spend another year completing interior work. For example, ESPN's HD broadcasts meant retooling the size of the upcoming studios to address the demands of the 16:9 format. "It requires a wider viewing angle, so the studios needed to be 'stretched' to accommodate that," says Gering.

Another consideration is the stress placed upon the engineering system that supports the facility, even though digital equipment generally demands less power and cooling. "Because components tend to take up less square footage, people tend to want to use more of it, and as a result, it exaggerates the mechanical and electrical support for that level of technology," he explains.

--Art DaudelinNew trucks, new building drive the detail home


Through the offices and hallways of ESPN, pulses tend to climb as each new sports season gets underway. This year, however, adrenaline levels in the Bristol-based network may match those of the athletes on the field with the March 30 debut of ESPN HD, the networks's high-definition simulcast service and the latest expansion to its multichannel lineup.

Although the majority of its programming will be upconverted from SD in 2003, live, native 720p HD coverage will include approximately 100 events, including pro baseball, basketball and hockey, plus college basketball, the X Games, and the ESPY Awards show. The launch of ESPN HD is the first step in a plan that will culminate sometime in 2004, with the deployment of a digital transmission center that will provide the network 3,700 hours of HD programming, including the network's staple studio shows such as "SportsCenter."


The network's decision to take the 720p road to HD instead of the 1080i approach embraced by NBC and CBS is notable, says Chuck Pagano, senior vice president of technology, engineering and operations, and becomes clearer when looking at flat-panel trends in the television marketplace over the next few years.

"They are primarily XGA-type devices," says Pagano. "Natively and indigenously, they are progressive in nature. It didn't make any sense to go to an interlaced format."

The full-frame progressive scanning of 720p is also widely recognized as an edge in reproducing rapidly moving objects without blurring, making it a natural for an all-sports network. "We felt for the best presentation, where we use a variety of production techniques such as slow-mo and stillframe, the progressive format made better sense and would look more compelling," explains Pagano.

The progressive route was not without some challenges, adds Wendell Grigely, director of remote operations. Most notable, he says, was that most manufacturers were building 1080i-based equipment.

"That format had a foothold, so that's what the first HD trucks were built as," he says. The necessity of acquiring high-end 720P-friendly trucks meant soliciting input from ESPN's SD vendors and gauging their ability to build or rebuild mobile units that met their new HD needs.


ESPN will work with three different truck vendors to deploy the HD programming. Pittsburgh-based NEP had a head start foothold through its work with ESPN's "Sunday Night Football," and New Century Productions (NCP) had similar experience with its ESPN baseball programming. National Mobile Television (NMT) also seemed a natural choice based on its work with sibling network ABC. "We figured it would be great to be involved with them, since they obviously had to be 720p for ABC events," says Grigely.

ESPN will catch HD action with the Thomson LDK-6000 MK II multiformat camera, which provides native scanning in both 1080i and 720p. A variety of Canon lenses (75:1, 86:1 and 100:1, among others) will reside on the hard cameras, while the handheld versions of the Thomson will sport Canon 20:1 lenses.

Thomson XtenDD HD switchers also made the cut after some deliberations, says Grigely. "They closely resemble the familiar DD35 interface, and it gives us 720p, so everyone figured that was the natural way to go." Offering 90 inputs, up to 36 outputs and half a dozen downstream keyers (DSKs) and 20 auxiliary busses, the Thomson provides up to 4 M/Es with three keyers per M/E. Simulcast capabilities also enable SD/HD programming within a dual-frame, single-control-panel environment. Graphics and character generation will be delivered via the Chyron Duet and iNFiNiT!, upconverted to HD.


As HD deployment progresses, Grigely says ESPN is confident that production issues-such as animations and graphics and framing-will be readily addressed. "We're entering a new realm and televising in a whole new format," he acknowledges. "We'll learn as we go along and bring great TV home."

Convincing that sports fan at home to follow the example of the broadcaster in migrating to HD will also be an ongoing task, says Pagano, and will include live, on-air comparisons of HD and SD by announcing teams. "It's an education process," says Pagano of the effort, which will also include up to a dozen widescreen HDTVs positioned throughout Anaheim's Edison Field for ESPN HD's debut, which will cover baseball's opening day Texas Rangers-Anaheim Angels match-up.

"We think it's a natural viewing medium for them," he says. "It's where we're headed as a society. One way or another, we're going to be an HD nation, so we're doing our part to get America ready."