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ESPN Hedges Its Bets on 4K-TV

ESPN Hedges Its Bets on 4K-TV 6/23/2013 8:00 PM Eastern

ESPN was an early mover with high-definition TV and 3DTV, but it’s content for now to stick its toe in the water first before taking the plunge on 4K/ Ultra TV, a format that will support four times the resolution of today’s best HD images.

The sports titan’s top tech executive is not yet sold on 4K TV, but his group is starting to build the technical framework required for Ultra HD in case the eyepopping platform becomes a long-term winner with consumers.

“It’s still too early to say if I’m bullish or not on 4K,” Chuck Pagano, the executive vice president and chief technology officer of ESPN, said in an interview. “I’m sort of in the middle of the road on 4K right now, because there are still a lot of variables that need to be delineated. There is still a minimal ecosystem for us to do anything with 4K.”

Many components that will make up the underlying 4K production system, including switchers and graphics engines, are still in development, Pagano said. Vendors have told him not to expect many of those pieces to be available in desired quantities until 2015, he said.

“There’s still a lot of things to figure out before we can say we’re going to be playing in this space or not yet,” he said. “We’re actively looking [at 4K], but I can’t tell you I have a date in mind.”

Pagano also isn’t convinced that consumers will notice or appreciate the difference between 4K and regular HDTV unless they’re viewing Ultra HD on massive displays. He and his colleagues have studied HDTV and 4K images side-by-side on a 55-inch screen and “scratched their heads,” because they didn’t see a huge difference.

If consumers can afford a 100-inch screen and squeeze it into their houses, then that’s something else. “[We’re] just getting our fingers a little bit dirty with trying to understand the mechanics,” he said.

ESPN is starting to lay the groundwork for 4K. In fact, it’s already experimenting with the technology. For its coverage of the NBA Finals (which aired on ABC), for example, ESPN used a 4K camera to create HD images that allowed the network to perform dynamic digital zooming and scanning, rather than performing that function mechanically.

“We’re not using it for 4K distribution, but using it for HD storytelling using 4K tools,” Pagano explained.

ESPN also has 4K in mind as it builds a new digital production center, internally called DC2, in Bristol, Conn. The 190,000-square foot facility, to become operational next spring, will run fi ve studios and serve as the new home of the network’s flagship SportsCenter program.

Pagano’s goal is to create a future-proofed facility with the “cardio-pulmonary system — the plumbing” that can attach 4K productions facilities to the master grid, and support incremental upgrades that could lead to 8K productions years down the road.

ESPN’S 3DTV ‘EXPERIMENT’

Pagano also reflected on ESPN’s decision to shut down its 3DTV network at the end of the year due to lack of consumer interest (“ESPN Takes Off 3D Glasses,” June 13, 2013).

“I was never convinced that it was worthy of a full-time network; we may have overloaded people somewhat,” Pagano said, adding that, in retrospect, producing special events in 3DTV “would have been a little more intriguing.”

But ESPN will come away with some important knowledge in the bank from what Pagano called a “big science experiment.” The programmer came out of it with a good handle on the complexity of producing stereoscopic TV in a live environment.

“We gave it a shot to see where it landed,” Pagano said. “It’s simple: there wasn’t a demand curve for it.” If 3DTV makes a comeback (some believe 4K could help to usher in a glasses-free 3D experience and remove one of the adoption barriers), “we’ll at least be ready to entertain it again,” Pagano added.

TAKEAWAY

Early adopter ESPN is taking a wait-and-see approach toward rolling out the 4K Ultra HD format.

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