ESPN exposes alternative winter sports
ASPEN, COLORADO: The powdery white snow is the same, the athletes are just as bold and daring as they've always been. What's different, believe it or not, is the X Games itself.
Ten years ago, ESPN introduced a new kind of broadcast program, one that was designed to highlight just how extreme some sports could be--snowboarders making risky half-pipe jumps and skiers launching themselves off an icy precipice.
But the coverage of the events themselves was considered pretty tame, especially by today's standards. Looking to the biggest sporting event in the world--the Olympics--for inspiration, ESPN's early X Games broadcast mirrored the Olympics in many ways. Despite the daring-do on the slopes, the broadcast itself was a typical American televised Olympic event, complete with medal board counts and talking heads providing commentary.
"It was a broadcast similar to what an American watching the Olympics would see," said Rich Feinberg, senior coordinating producer for ESPN, who has been working on the event since the creation of the X Games concept in 1994.
"We thought that was a little too homogenized," Feinberg said, "and we headed to the other side of the spectrum," creating a high-energy broadcast with slickly edited featurettes and intensive music selections.
"In both cases it was too far left and then too far right," Feinberg said. "We found after a few years that the right solution was somewhere in the middle--creating a contemporary presentation with music and graphics, with announcers [who are athletes themselves] and come from these sports."
ESPN will celebrate its 10th anniversary with a Winter X Games broadcast that fits "just right," Feinberg said: A smartly organized, graphics intensive, contemporary broadcast that tells a good story and gives today's "instant gratification" audience what they are looking for. "I'm always telling my staff that what's new today is old tomorrow," he said. "We have to keep looking forward and giving them something new."
But the new offerings that viewers will see at the 2006 X Games--held for the fourth consecutive year at Buttermilk Mountain in Aspen, Colo., from Jan. 28-31--is being put together, perhaps not surprisingly, with equipment from old friends. The network will use Thomson cameras and Sony handheld cameras, including the Sony DXC-900, known as the FollowCam, which allows a cameraman to strap on skis or hop on board a snowmobile and literally follow an athlete down the hill.
"There's no better view than riding down alongside one of these guys," Feinberg said.
ESPN will again offer sights from the sky with FlyCams from Panasonic, which offer a 360-degree field of view from up above the race course, and can be sent flying down the hill at 40 mph. To give viewers a sense of the enormity of the event, ESPN will use a TowerCam atop a 130-foot crane this year. ESPN will again use mobile production trucks from National Mobile Television, which include Grass Valley switchers, Chyron graphics systems, Sony DVW A-500 recorder, Tektronix Profile PDR 200, DVEous special effects systems and Calrec audio consoles.
AWASH IN LIGHT
Though Feinberg thinks ESPN has the tools and the production style down pat, that doesn't mean that the event always goes off without a hitch. "The Winter X Games is one of the largest production events that ESPN does on a yearly basis," he said. "It's always a challenge to broadcast live in sub-zero temperatures." To try and get the job done right, ESPN will head to Aspen with four production teams--three at the venues and one at the broadcast center, which handles the domestic live telecast, the international broadcasts as well as bits of news and information to air on ESPN's SportsCenter. Now 10 years later, ESPN has also changed the way its disseminates the X Games, airing the program on Verizon's VCAST wireless video delivery system; on the ESPN 360 Internet channel; and EXPN, the network's action sports Web site.
The premiere event at this year's X Games is expected to be the SuperPipe, where ESPN will air SnoCross events--in which riders send their snowmobiles off jumps and through a tricky race course--at night. To get the lighting just right, the network is working with the Musco Lighting Company to build an entire lighting scenario that includes several light trucks and several cranes with 80-foot booms outfitted with 6,000 HMI par lights. ESPN worked closely with Michael Franks Enterprises to get the temperature of the light just right as it hits the snow so that the entire mountain doesn't end up a saturated pink or blue.
The racecourses awash in lights will be a spectacular sight, Feinberg said. "We want to light up as much of the mountain as we can, making the light reach as high as possible."
More than 230 athletes are set to compete in events ranging from the SnoCross snowmobile competition, Moto X motorcycle racing, snowboarding and skiing.
The mountain will be pockmarked with 75 different camera locations, from jib-mounted cameras and POVs to handhelds and those FlyCams that sail down the mountain with the athletes. The goal is to tell the best possible story and put the viewer in the action as much as possible.
"I always felt that if we could put viewers in the environment, the more compelling the experience would be," Feinberg said. "We want it to be like a seat on the ride."
Though it has been called the most compelling experience of them all, high-definition acquisition isn't part of ESPN's plans at the 2006 X Games, said spokesperson Melissa Gullotti. "HD is in our future for sure," she said. "But with the amount of trucks we'd need for Winter X Games--for the different venues, events, broadcast center, etc.--the supply hasn't caught up the demand yet."
But HD remains on the horizon for the X Games. And who knows what else the next 10 years may bring.
"In the last 10 years we've gone through an evolution in philosophy," Feinberg said. Above all, ESPN's X Games have evolved because the sport and their viewers have called for it. "It's important that we stay contemporary and stay true to them."
Susan Ashworth is the former editor of TV Technology. In addition to her work covering the broadcast television industry, she has served as editor of two housing finance magazines and written about topics as varied as education, radio, chess, music and sports. Outside of her life as a writer, she recently served as president of a local nonprofit organization supporting girls in baseball.
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