ESPN retools for hi-def

Digital media facility will enable launch of 24/7 HD network

For all of the technical innovation that ESPN has achieved over the years, it's surprising how little the network has done in technical overhauls for its control room and Bristol, Conn.-based facilities. That will soon change.

2003 promises to be a busy year for ESPN: The network will launch ESPN HD on cable and DBS in April and begin installing more than $100 million in equipment in a new 120,000-square-foot facility in Bristol. Manufacturers recently submitted bids for the multi-phase project, with the first phase to be editing and video servers. By January 2004, the completed facility will be able to handle HDTV studio productions—a big leap from the current facilities, which are the original ones used when the network was launched in 1979.

"We're very excited about HDTV and think it's a natural evolution," says Sean Bratches, ESPN executive vice president, affiliate sales and marketing. "Our affiliates have been asking for us to produce in HD, and this is, in large part, a response to their interest in producing content in high-def."

The HD productions will include Major League Baseball, National Football League and National Basketball Association games as well as the X Games, the NCAA basketball women's Final Four and the NCAA ACC men's basketball tournament. Prime time will be the focus, with more than 100 events scheduled to be produced and shown in 720p. ESPN rents its production vehicles and plans to rent the HD production units as well, although how the productions will be done is to be determined.

The decision to update, Bratches adds, was driven by ESPN affiliates, which are beginning to roll out HDTV tiers. And HD sports is an attractive proposition, as shown by the work at CBS, ABC and HDNet. "We're the logical partner from a league, affiliate and advertiser perspective to deliver this content to consumers."