X-treme Hi-Def

ESPN’s coverage of Winter X Games 12, Jan. 24-27 from Aspen Colo. will mark “the first ever multi-sport winter action sports event to be presented in HD,” according to Rick Alessandri, senior vice president, ESPN consumer products and X Games managing director.

Approximately 59 HD cameras will be used to cover the action, (the only exception will be standard-definition specialty cams for the snowmobiles which are being developed by Broadcast Sports Inc., a subsidiary of L-3 Communications and developer of wireless camera systems). The HD roster includes 20 Thomson Grass Valley WorldCams (LDK 6000s and LDK 8000s) and three Thomson Grass Valley super slo-mos (LDK 6200s), as well as 15 models from Sony (HDC1000s and HDC1500s). “A large number of robotics,” will also be involved, ESPN’s Chief Technical Manager Stephen Raymond said.

(click thumbnail)More than 250 of the world’s best winter sports athletes will compete for medals and prize money in skiing, snowboard and snowmobile competitions when X Games returns to Aspen later this month.Fletcher Chicago will supply 12 Panasonic AK-HC1500G cameras with either Stanton Video Services’ Mini Remote Heads or Egripment BV’s Mini Shots mounted on stands along the runs. Four will be placed along the longest downhill course—the X Course—in places either too dangerous for camera operators or where a full size camera could impair the athletes’ safety. Three others will give an intimate look at jumps, twists and turns during freestyle events. Another two will cover SnoCross events—one capturing jumps from a 120-foot crane, the other down low in the turn to deliver high speed thrills. Three booth cameras will focus on announcers at the X Course, SnoCross, Slopestyle and SuperPipe events.

This Side Up Productions will provide three FlyCam units built around Panasonic AK-HC900 cameras. The task required new initiatives for bandwidth, electrical connections (new custom slip ring), speed capacity (100 miles per hour versus 80 mph last year) and construction (to build a 45-foot truss tower on a nine square-foot platform). BSI provided the bandwidth solution, according to Pat Hally, founder and president of This Side Up Productions, an event management and production company based in Grand Rapids, Mich.

“As the X Games grow, more and more RF elements become a part of the show,” said Clay Underwood, business development manager for BSI in Odenton, Md. “The problem is finding enough channels within the available capabilities of the equipment to put all the different RF elements together.” Underwood said FlyCam would probably use spectrum used by the Aerospace and Flight Test Radio Coordinating Council. “We can coordinate that spectrum with the military and temporarily license it with the FCC,” he said. “We develop and build our own equipment to be able to utilize that spectrum.”

But the big story is ESPN’s strategy to distribute the HDTV and audio signals to its clients.


HD’s bandwidth constraints forced ESPN to forego most of the copper infrastructure it owns, and rent fiber instead.

(click thumbnail)Hannah Teter competes in the Women’s Superpipe Finals at X Games XI. Photo credit: Alon Keey/Wire Image“We had to replace a large amount of copper runs with fiber optic this year, needing bandwidth to move the signal around,” said Senior Operations Producer Larry Wilson. “We’re looking at 18,000 feet of TAC-12 [tactical grade, 12-strand fiber optics), 6,000 feet of TAC-24, 5,000 feet of TAC-4 and 19,000 feet of SMPTE fiber.”

The upgrade to HD also pushed ESPN to come up with new, creative technical solutions. Luckily, a lot of the strategizing had already been done for ESPN’s NASCAR coverage, Wilson said, resulting in NEP’s custom-built Supershooter 21, which will also be used at Winter X Games 12. Trucks from National Mobile Television were also hauled in to provide HD transmission. To accommodate these trucks and provide as many short cable runs as possible, ESPN had to increase the size of its compound by about 25 percent, Wilson said.


Anticipating larger media files coursing through its high-speed Ethernet backbone, ESPN doubled the size of its EVS network to 32 XT[2] HD 6-channel disk recorders, which provide 160-video channels. The system incorporates EVS’ Multicam Version 9 software (which restructures the file system) and IP Director (which, among other things, allows metadata to be attached to video clips).

“The new developments from EVS will allow for more efficient file transfer methods due to a restructuring of the file block size and, more importantly, new methods for controlling direct paths within the network,” said Greg Blanton, engineering consultant to ESPN and founder of Dallas-based Broadcast Fusion, which specializes in custom integrated solutions for live event broadcast workflows. Particularly noteworthy were improved transfers between XTs, XTs and SAN modules, and XTs and the Avid Unity platform. “These are important factors in controlling the overall traffic generated in an HD production of this size,” Blanton said.

In addition, the EVS servers will run Avid’s DNxHD codec at 100 Mbps (versus the standard 145 Mbps).

EVS has done a 100 Mbps VC-3 implementation (the SMPTE spec for Avid’s DNxHD), according to Mike Shore, senior manager, product and third party integration for EVS. “This enables media to move between EVS and Avid systems in a way that optimizes the current EVS workflow but still maintains codec compatibility with Avid,” he said.

Avid has not tested this implementation, according to an Avid source.


ESPN plans to distribute audio signals from the various venues through 16 channels of discrete audio stems so that each of its partners can pick out the elements they want and make their own mix, according to Raymond. “It’s difficult when you’re serving that many different clients to create all the different custom mixes that each one needs,” he said.

Raymond credited ESPN’s ability to offer this alternative to “fairly new-to-market” HD audio embedding products from Evertz, Sony and AJA Video. Calrec’s Hydra audio networking system enables multiple console users to access all available fiber connective remote inputs using touchscreen panels, according to Ron Scalise, audio project manager for ESPN Remote Operations. He also noted that CobraNet, an audio networking technology from Cirrus Logic, has been enhanced by Lance Design audio distribution and delay units to optimize the sharing and distribution of resources among all entities in the broadcast mode. It also enables gain structure and adjustable delay features on individual channels without latency issues, Scalise said.


ESPN’s in-house engineers designed a “Quantel Travel Pack” to bring ESPN Digital Center’s perks out on the road for X Center coverage, using the QEP editing system.

According to Wilson, ESPN will use four QEP edit stations and four QCut (browse edit) stations, which use low bit-rate editing software, so that editors can do rough cuts, create edit lists, save time and move data to QEP.

Wilson said there is no way to electronically transfer files between EVS and Quantel technologies. “We use an EVS IP Director to move baseband video from the plant’s EVS network to the Quantel server,” he said.