The House that HD Built

ESPN Opens Digital Operation Center
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ESPN Opens Digital Operation Center

BRISTOL, CONN.

You could say that on June 7, when ESPN broadcasts "SportsCenter" from within its new 120,000-square-foot HD facility, the Bristol-based sports network will be running out of options. Years ago, when a power shortage presented a potential crisis for the fledgling operation, equal parts of creativity and elbow grease could save the day.

"Somebody brought his truck down and gave the generator a jump-start," said Bill Lamb, vice president of systems engineering and electronic maintenance. "We've always been a can-do operation."

But even as low-tech solutions become less viable in maintaining the state-of-the-art digital broadcast facility, the likelihood of their necessity is also diminishing.

From the project's genesis, when it was just a gleam in the eyes of people like Ted Szypulski, director of engineering special projects for ESPN, the can-do attitude was brought to bear. Working with the project's prime integrator, National TeleConsultants, each step of the project was carefully analyzed and outlined well in advance, including the selection of prospective participants.

"We needed to get the right teams together, the right people, and come up with ideas," Szypulski said. "It was kind of a fun time because you are dreaming and you don't have the constraints of budget or time."

Out of that came a thick narrative and a stack of well-detailed block diagrams of everything that would be in the building, including approximately 7 million feet of cable.

"Those became the creation of the RFP to go out to system integrators," Szypulski said.

As a result, The Systems Group (TSG) of Hoboken, N.J., and Renton, Wash.-based Doyle Technologies were drafted to join the integration team.

Carefully designing an all-digital cutting-edge facility involved covering multiple bases. There are no offices in the building, but lockers are everywhere.

"Like a high school," joked Szypulski.

A building management system monitors air-conditioning, power and fire control, sending alerts via a scrolling text screen. A thousand-fiber-strong optic backbone runs between the HD center and its older sibling, which is at the heart of transmission and reception signals.

"The new building is built [so] that if you cut everything from it, it can drift off on its own and continue to work well with whatever it had left," he said.

A vigilant approach to safety is also in evidence, with equipment dispersed and interlaced between the two equipment rooms that reside on every floor.

"We never have all of one thing in a room. That way, if a room bursts into flames, you'd still have two cameras, you wouldn't lose them all," he said.

SEE-THROUGH

Glass is used generously throughout the building to help create a work-friendly atmosphere, and to show off the facility, Szypulski said.

"A 24/7 operation such as master control gets a window-some contact with the outside world. Even our electronic maintenance shop, which has always gotten the dregs of the building over the years-dark, grungy old places-gets a nice big new shop and a window with a view," he said.

Although the network has evolved far beyond the jumper-cable methods of bygone eras, its approach to power is still paramount. The center's 13.8 kilovolt dual feeds run from the generator building to the basement and to two separate, identical substation groups.

"It's redundant all the way," said Szypulski.

GRASSY

Much of the broadcast equipment in the Center, such as the Thomson LDK-6000 MK II cameras and Kalypso HD video production switchers (for handling multi-camera shows such as "SportsCenter"), bears the Grass Valley/Thomson logo, part of a deal worth some $15 million. The selection was at least in part the result of feedback from staff. "The Kalypso was the one our operation units had desired," said Chuck Pagano, senior vice president of Technology, Engineering and Operations.

According to Szypulski, the new facility represents the world's largest HD-routing system. With 10 million HD crosspoints in the routing system, the building's complex digital infrastructure features multiple Grass Valley Trinix large-scale video routing switchers configured in a 1024 x 512 matrix for HD video, and a 1500 x 800 Apex audio router system to handle incoming audio, which is converted to multichannel AES files.

ACTION

Key to the facility is the updated broadcast center, where games are screened and decisions are made regarding game highlights. Similarly glass-themed, the room sports a lighting grid overhead.

"It will be a buzz of activity in the evenings, especially on weekends," Szypulski said. "We are going to take it to air sometimes."

Slated for full completion sometime in 2005, the public's first view of the HD center, which will produce approximately 3,700 hours of HD studio programming each year, will come from the 5,000-square-foot "SportsCenter" set, one of three studios that comprise 17,000 square feet of studio space within the facility.

Kevin Stolworthy, vice president, Production, Operations and Creative Services, said doing "SportsCenter" in HD represented the biggest shift for the operation.

"SportsCenter airs 12 hours a day," he said. "We've only done events in HD until now."

The two-anchor "SportsCenter" set, designed by Production Design Group Ltd., which created sets for "Good Morning America," "Dateline NBC," "CBS This Morning," "Meet The Press" "48 Hours" and MSNBC, should impress, Stolworthy said, pointing to the fiber-optic floor sporting 4,000 points of light.

"Disney Imagineering worked with us to coordinate it," he said.

A battery of Barco SLM R-10 HD projectors, with Lumin-oz and JenMar screens dominate the studio.

"We call it the 'Tower of Terror,'" he joked.

Another studio, which will be ready on Sept. 12, will encompass 9,000 square feet and represent the workhorse of the facility, housing most other broadcasts such as "Baseball Tonight" and various football- and basketball-related productions.

"We'll be doing three shows a night here, and 20,000 shows in the next three years in that one studio," Stolworthy said. Another smaller studio will debut in January 2005.

IN CONTROL

The redundancy approach also applies to the three production control rooms.

"Each one is based on the same architectural dimensions," Stolworthy said. "If you have to move to another [control room], everything is in the exact same place."

Filled with Christie 70-inch GraphXMASTER monitors, the new PCRs have an improved workflow thanks to a shift in personnel.

"Since they're not loading tapes into a tape machine anymore, we've added media in there," Stolworthy said.

The added graphics playout positions operate the Pinnacle FX DekoII and the vizrt machines.

"The idea is to get them into the control room so we can talk to them and communicate better versus headsets," he said. "They are looking at a GUI and hitting play on a server. They are actually going to be in here so they have eye contact with the producer."

AUDIO

In the audio rooms, digital mixers are being used for the first time; in this case, the 60-fader, 176-channel Calrec Alpha 100.

"The manufacturers have made great advances over the years and now it is like a routing switcher, you glitch the power but it comes back up the way it was," Szypulski said. "We're going from mono to 16 channels of audio, and skipped everything in between."

SERVING DIGITAL

ESPN will be using Quantel servers as a key part of its digital infrastructure.

"They hold both the SD MPEG and the HD-DV format, so that they are intertwined and fairly homogenous in how we can use them in the same environment," Pagano said.

The Quantel array at ESPN rolled out with 64 sQ servers, seven eQ new HD nonlinear editing systems and a lineup of editing packages that include 16 QEditPros, 20 QCut editors and 172 QViews.

A major factor in deciding to align itself with Quantel, Pagano said, was its prior success in a similar project.

"Quantel and BBC had come together and explained to us what they were doing in London with the BBC's Project Jupiter, and the RFPs just stuck out," he said.

The digital, nontape environment will streamline the workflow, Szypulski said.

"For the first time, we can be recording events on disk while simultaneously annotating, editing and airing it all at the same time without having to handle a tape," he said.

Every production control room will be equipped with its own Quantel editing system.

"So they can be editing the "SportsCenter" show for re-air while it is still on the air," said Szypulski. "Integrating an editor with the storage and the database is important, since you can lose information going through an editing cycle."

One concern when initially considering an HD-only facility, said Szypulski, was downconversion.

"It's the most important thing after we're done doing the HD show-downcoverting it to SD and transmitting it to 99.9 percent of viewers."

As a result, a testing period took place, where video was upconverted from 480i to 720p. Then, while work was done within the 720p format, some 1080i material was incorporated; a 720p HD show was produced then downcoverted back to 480i.

"We looked closely at the quality of the image through that process, because it was a model of what the building is going to be," he said. "We looked at real video with our eyes. Some people even said that after the conversions, it looked better. So we decided to go ahead, and built the facility HD-only."

CONVERSION WORKFLOW

Prime integrator National Teleconsultants was also responsible for helping develop a workflow for the conversion process.

Ed Hobson, vice president of the Bay Area-based group, said his team worked closely with Szypulski and other to come up with a flexible design without sacrificing quality.

"We mixed and matched the various high-def flavors, created a playout version, and created a standard-def [version] because for some time to come, the majority of the viewers are going to be watching on 525," Hobson said.

In addition, multiple audio channels needed to be considered, since ESPN feeds multiple international feeds.

TWO PROJECTS IN ONE

It is important to note, Szypulski said, that aside from the HD center itself, another major project is ongoing within the center-the conversion of legacy videotape to disk-based storage media.

"There are no tape rooms associated with any of the control rooms in this building," he said.

There are, however, several "media rooms" for playback, with just about every kind of tape machine there is, Szypulski said. By comparison, there are 700 active tape machines in Building One.

"So we have that interface to the legacy world, but the building is built with a disk-based media asset management in mind," he said.

With more than a million hours of tape, the conversion process will be done on an "as-needed" basis, said Stolworthy. "When we flip the switch, we'll be digitizing everything as it comes in-anything between 100 and 300 hours a day."

DIGITAL EVOLUTION

As a result, legacy videotape will be digitized when its use is required.

"This wasn't designed to convert the facility all to ones and zeros," he said. "This is basically to take us forward... and make sure we have those ones and zeros on anything we take in."

Two circumstances coincided with the construction of the center, Szypulski said. A soft economy, and the advancement of HD gear.

"HD products have matured," he said. "They've gone through their first and second generations, and addressed issues."

The work undertaken sometimes had an impact on the products, said Szypulski.

"There are a number of vendors adapting their equipment and modifying it as a standard model because of what we thought of here," he said, pointing to the Wohler AMP 2-S8 Series digital audio monitor panel used in audio control rooms, and the Evertz MVP multivideo processor. "They adapted and defined the processor that drives the big virtual monitor wall, way back in the conceptual phase."

The steady upgrade in HD products also affected the decision to take an upconvert approach to graphics, said Stolworthy.

"HD products that debuted a year ago couldn't do the effects they could do in SD," he said, allowing that, as products from companies such as Pinnacle (which announced its Deko3000 HD at NAB2004) and Chyron's Duet continue to evolve, more native HD CG will take place.

GRATIFIED

Pagano praised the people at ESPN who applied the "can-do" spirit to building the center.

"My team is stellar," he said. "I am incredibly impressed and sort of humbled when a bunch of good, smart people get together and implement a plan and a vision. This facility will continue to evolve and allow us to grow and continue to be, what I believe, is the leader in the sports HD television domain."