ESPN Pushes New-Time Religion: HDTV

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The opening of the Major League Baseball season last week coincided with the one-year anniversary launch of ESPN HD, which has helped redefine the way sports is watched in America and the avenues through which the U.S. population is being educated about HD.

Set aside all the platform launches on cable and DBS, and the marketing and retail campaigns for a moment. ESPN’s constant reminders during in-game telecasts of HD, the side-by-side comparison in NFL and NHL games, the banter among announcers have perhaps, done more to fuel HD’s evolution than anything else in the past 12 months.

The spark started with ESPN’s staff, says Bryan Burns, vice president, strategy, business planning and development. “People here are in the TV business, and this is our generation’s conversion from black and white to color,” Burns said, putting a historical reference point to HD. “People saw this and said: 'Wow, I want to get involved with this.’ Everybody at ESPN embraced it, and they realized this was the future of TV, from the talent to the producers, directors and engineers.”

Burns says he was watching an Avalanche game on HD several months ago and commentator Bill Clement, who Burns says he only met once, started touting HD, showing side-by-side comparisons, and how much richer a hockey game could be in HD.

It’s that HD religion, Burns says, that is “the biggest thing we accomplished this year. We turned the entire ESPN machine around and focused on this product.”

100 HD EVENTS TO START

In ESPN’s first year, the company committed to 100 HD events, but wound up televising 144 in HD. In calendar-year 2004, ESPN will do 185 events, Burns said, not counting events the network does for ABC like the Stanley Cup, NBA finals and selected other telecasts.

ESPN carried Playmakers in HD this year and most of the network’s original programming, including movies on the lives of Pete Rose and Dale Earnhardt. The network also is looking at adding some golf and horse-racing events as equipment allows.

ESPN uses three HD trucks and has a fourth rolling off the assembly line in May. A fifth truck is slated to be added in March 2005.

Fox is now doing sports in 720p, Burns said, the same format ESPN uses, which will increase the number of mobile HD production trucks in the market, which will be good for all sports providers.

The next big step will occur June 7, when the new 120,000 square foot digital production center will open in Bristol, Conn. Chuck Pagano, senior vice president, technology, engineering and operations, at ESPN, has overseen construction of the facility, believed to be the largest HD production center in the world. Every camera, switch, router and production bay will be in HD. The center sports seven million feet of cable, and will allow ESPN to begin broadcasting SportsCenter in HD.

MORE CONVERTS TO HD

This fall, ESPN’s NFL studio programming will be produced in HD, with Baseball Tonight slated for conversion in 2005.

The studio grabs feeds from all over the world, in various formats and at various quality levels. Converting those to HD will be no easy task. “It’s the toughest job in TV,” Burns explains, because ESPN is at the mercy of whatever quality of the video feed they receive.

“By next spring, we’ll be running 55% to 58% of our program schedule in originally produced HD,” he adds.

SportsCenter also shows up on ESPN 2 and ESPNNews, sometimes, but those feeds won’t be HD. Instead, SportsCenter will be “center cut,” meaning all pertinent graphics will be in the center part of the screen, so ESPN won’t lose anything when SportsCenter airs in standard definition, with its narrower screen format, on its other channels. The crawl remains unaffected, Burns says.

On the marketing side, Philips and Best Buy have renegotiated their ESPNHD sponsorship for 2004, according to Burns. “They really understood the use of our other media for marketing and they have both renewed 2004.”

On March 29, 15 Best Buy stores across the country showcased the March 5 Duke-North Carolina in a side-by-side HD versus standard-definition comparison.

“There is no limit to the things you can do,” Burns adds. During the Big 10 conference tournament -- ESPN carried many of those games in HD -- there were HDTV sets positioned all across Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis to showcase the product.

ESPN also has concluded a deal with a national bar and restaurant association and DirecTV to set up a 1-800 number for bars to call to get DirecTV and HD service.

Most of the major platform providers carry ESPN HD, with Voom, Cablevision Systems Corp. and Time Warner Cable the major holdouts.

“We don’t focus on how many subscribers we have,” Burns says, but rather the fact “we have nearly 70 million homes under contract. We signed Comcast, and we will roll with them when they upgrade and launch HD in their systems.”

A DIFFERENT 'MESSAGE’

Affiliate marketing campaigns this year will be adjusted slightly this year.

Burns explains that there will be less “call your local cable or satellite operator” messages, and more education about needing an HD set and HD service to see HD programming.

“We hit this at the exact right time,” Burns believes. The launch of ESPN HD “has taken awareness of what HD is to a whole different level it never was at before.”

Burns adds that more than 20 MLB teams will do local HD games this year..

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