ESPN Eyes Future Upgrades Today


Gear for ESPN’s new Los Angeles facility and eventual expansion of the just-built tech complex in Bristol, Conn., are just two of the items that will keep ESPN VP of Technology Planning Jim Servies and his crew busy at the NAB show.

ESPN will need more ways to deliver HD as its output increases and the L.A. building opens in 2009. “There’s a constant demand curve for HD transmission gear,” Servies says.

ESPN’s graphics environment is also changing. “We’re migrating from traditional stand-alone box graphics equipment to a server-client type of environment,” he says. The new VizRT system sets up on-air graphics as empty shells that are then filled in with scores, stats and other data via automation systems.

ESPN will also take a hard look at virtual-set technology. Virtual sets—on-air talent essentially sit in a massive chroma-key environment with computer-generated sets added—have been around for more than a decade but are used mainly in Europe and Asia.

“The biggest concern is the initial investment,” says Servies.

Another issue is how the technology holds up in a live environment. “Live programming demands a very high-quality virtual-set–preview function,” he says.

“You also need a very skilled creative group,” he continues, “that understands vectors and how to create virtual graphics.” But, he adds, the technology is finally becoming easier and cheaper.

As for more-traditional technologies, ESPN is looking at camera systems as it refurbishes its older SD gear and new low-cost nonlinear editing systems. Automation equipment, plasma and LCD displays, and projection systems for news sets are on the shopping list, as well.

“We’ll also look at the migration of high-end multiple-effects production switchers and keep up with the evolution of those products as well as upgrade some of our VTRs,” Servies says.

A challenge with such technologies as virtual set or new production switchers is ensuring that the advanced features make the overall system less complicated to run. “All the switchers at the high end perform very well,” Servies explains. “It’s all about how the panel works and how easy it is for the staff to use.”

Data-archive systems and the always evolving data formats and compression systems are also on Servies’ list.

“We’ll be looking for products that let us scale out those systems without hardware, as well as transcoding gear,” he says, “so we can deal with different flavors of MPEG for editing and playback.”

As much as Servies likes seeing gear from the established suppliers at NAB, it’s foraging through the smaller booths and companies that makes the show fun.

“The thing I enjoy most is going around and finding the guy who is sharing a small booth with a buddy from college to show a product they’re risking their career on,” he says. “Several times, I’ll go to the show looking for a solution to a problem, and I’ll find it in a teeny booth.”