A decade after ESPN broke new ground in broadcast sports technology with the completion of its all-HD Digital Center (DC1) in June 2004, the company is once again pushing the boundaries of new technologies with the new Digital Center 2 (DC2), slated to open sometime next month on the network’s Bristol, Conn., campus.
At 193,000 square feet, DC2 will add five studios (covering 25,000 sq. ft.), six production control rooms and 16 editing suites when it is completed in 2015. Long before that, however, viewers will see major changes in a number of ESPN productions, most notably SportsCenter, which in June will go live from new 10,000-sq.- ft. studios—double its current space.
“When the last SportsCenter studio was built in DC1, SportsCenter was live three hours a day; now it is live 18 hours a day and the show has evolved immensely,” both for TV and digital platforms, says Craig Bengtson, VP and director of news at ESPN. “This will give us the production capability for a 24/7 show that we didn’t have before we built DC2.”
The added capacity, which will double the studio space in Bristol to 50,000 sq. ft., will also make it possible to upgrade existing facilities at DC1, explains Kevin Stolworthy, senior VP of content and information technology at ESPN. “Even with nine studios in DC1 with 25,000 sq. ft., we didn’t have the capacity to do a major facelift for a studio or to build a new one,” he says.
Further down the road, the facility will feature a massive fiber infrastructure designed to help the company quickly respond to new technologies. ESPN used more than 1,300 miles of fiber and deployed an innovative routing system from Evertz, capable of handling more than 60,000 streams. That “format agnostic” infrastructure will make it much easier to upgrade to higher-resolution formats, adds Dave Johnson, ESPN senior director of engineering.
Other cutting-edge technologies at the DC2 facility include an expanded Quantel production system that is the largest of its kind in the world; a new social media studio and production control room; innovative software and systems to handle the 114 monitors in the new SportsCenter studios; the world’s first major deployment of a multi-dimensional monitor wall that will allow hosts and guests to look like they are inside a stadium or other venue; and audio-video bridging (AVB) technologies that allow production teams to run audio over a generic broadband network infrastructure, according to Stolworthy and Johnson.
This Is Now SportsCenter
The new studio for SportsCenter is divided by a glass wall so the network can produce segments for upcoming shows. The 114 monitors are up from 15 on the current set. ESPN has hired a team of 26 staffers to feed graphics, images and information to those monitors to better analyze sports scores and news. And SportsCenter social media will also take center stage with its own studio.
The new SportsCenter set has nine main anchor positions, up from three in DC1. ESPN has also created new graphics, animation and music packages to change the signature show’s look throughout the day. “We want to differentiate the segments so viewers know they will be seeing new content and have a reason to stay,” Bengtson says.
The new multi-dimensional monitor wall in the SportsCenter set is one of the technologies in DC2 that ESPN is billing as a first. “We don’t think anyone has done anything like this on this scale,” Stolworthy says.
The wall is made up of dozens of individual monitors at different depths, which will allow producers to create a sense of depth on the images being displayed, Bengtson says. ESPN is still exploring the wall’s versatility and it is most likely to be used initially as the main area for holding debates and interviews.
“When you add in the virtual, you have an enormous wrap-around video world which will allow us to put talent and guests in a space where it will look like they are on a golf course, or a baseball stadium or in a certain city,” says Bengtson. “It will allow us to be creative and do things we’ve never done before.”
With the new set, anchor positions, massive monitor walls and the updated graphics and animation packages, the program will look “dramatically different for the viewer,” he adds. “They will still know they are watching SportsCenter but it will look remarkably different.”
To all this ESPN adds new software and graphics systems from Vizrt, providing new tools for managing all the feeds to the monitors.
Other notable vendors include switchers from Grass Valley, Lawo audio boards, Quantel production systems, Arista for the networking equipment and around 40 Sony cameras, including Sony HDC-2400s and Sony HDC-P1s.
ESPN uses automation systems for some production control rooms in DC1 but the first new control rooms for SportsCenter won’t have automation.
Aside from helping to provide a “format agnostic infrastructure” and handling a massive amount of inputs, the Evertz routing system offers a way to transition toward IP video, which is where many believe the industry is going.
Details for the next phase of the project, which will include three additional control rooms in DC2 aren’t finalized, but work is expected to begin on them in October, after the end of ESPN’s fiscal year, and run through the end of 2015, says Stolworthy.
SPORTS LEADER REALLY MAKES THE (UP) GRADE
ESPN executives stress that the company has made no decision on whether it will move from its current 720p HD feeds to higher resolutions such as 1080p or even UltraHD. For the time being, the 1080p feeds from the new DC2 facility in Bristol will be down-converted to 720p.
But the DC2 plant is all 1080p, which would allow the network to begin offering 1080 feeds, and its infrastructure is designed to make the transition to 4K much easier. “To upgrade DC1, you would have to basically tear everything out and rebuild it,” says Dave Johnson, senior director of engineering at ESPN. “With DC2, we took an entirely different approach with the fiber infrastructure and a distributed router infrastructure. To upgrade to 4K or even 8K, all we would really have to do is change out the end-gear. The router infrastructure itself is capable of transporting any kind of media, which really streamlines our future upgradability.”