It will take millions of dollars and several years to complete from start to finish. But ESPN's full conversion to HDTV for in-studio and remote site production will likely set the standard for any content provider anywhere.
The cornerstone will be a 120,000-square-foot production facility that will house seven HDTV control rooms and three large high-definition studios, directly behind ESPN's current master control center in Bristol, Conn.
The outer shell of the facility has been built, and ESPN engineers will spend the next year outfitting it with gear for next year's planned upgrade of SportsCenter
and other studio shows to high-definition.
The second piece is the fleet of three remote HDTV production trucks, which will deliver 100 live TV events in HDTV this year.
Opening day soon
Over the past month, network technical crews have been involved in trial production runs in the three trucks, leading up to ESPN's opening day for HDTV: the March 30 Major League Baseball opener between the Texas Rangers and Anaheim Angels.
This past weekend, the trucks were in Pittsburgh to run through the taping of a college-basketball game. During the last week of March, they'll be in Arizona to run through baseball coverage at the tail end of spring training, before heading to Edison International Field in Anaheim, Calif., for the March 30 season opener.
"These trucks are state of the art and then some," said Jed Drake, senior vice president of remote production.
"The key premise in launching HD, from a remote-production perspective, is that we have to make sure we shoot TV events with the same level of quality without negatively affecting our presentation in standard definition," he said. "Because these are simulcast, 99 percent of the audience initially will see that in standard def.
"At the same time, there will be an incredible presentation in HD. The magic is making sure [a standard-sized] set [displays] the show every bit as good as normal, and in HD it's that much better."
"It's not an easy thing to do," he added.
ESPN will set up 16 high-definition cameras in Anaheim on opening night.
Producing a sporting event in HD follows the same general methodology as a standard-definition telecast, Drake said. ESPN is shooting in the 720 progressive (720p) format, with camera feeds flowing into the remote truck's control room.
"The signal coming out of the truck will be native 720p," Drake said. "It goes up and down [on the satellite] in 720p and then gets split off here in Bristol through a downconverter," he said.
Cable subscribers with HDTV sets in cable systems that carry ESPN HD will receive the high-definition feed. All other TV sets owners will see ESPN in standard definition.
For the technical crew, the biggest difference in shooting a sporting event in HD rests with the cameramen.
"We are shooting in a 16-by-9 aspect ratio," compared to standard definition's 4-by-3 ratio, Drake said.
When an HD cameraman peers into his viewfinder, his HDTV feed will essentially pick up more activity to the left and right of the center of the action, as well as render a better-defined picture.
In baseball, the batter will be at the center of the frame, but the HDTV shot will render a more granularity in the picture and more video to the left and right of the hitter.
"When we were doing tests with football, the 4-by-3 framing with the QB coming up to the line, you see running backs on the left and linebackers on the right," Drake said.
HDTV allows viewers to see deeper to the left and right. For instance, the frame includes the "secondary" defenders behind the linebackers.
Toy man speaks
ESPN plans on 100 live HD telecasts this year, said senior vice president of technology, engineering and operations Chuck Pagano, the man in charge of buying the toys ESPN will put into its new HDTV digital center.
"It will work in parallel with the current broadcast center," Pagano said. "We working on the technical design criteria and fitting it out internally."
The 100 live HDTV events will come into the facility and be sent out to cable systems with which ESPN has HD carriage deals.
The video also will be downconverted to standard definition, but at a higher quality than usual, because the original feed is in HD.
"You'll see six shades of gray instead of two," Drake said.
The studio will house 16 HD cameras and seven production switches when it is complete.
"We'll have new master control rooms," said Pagano, but some standard-definition equipment will stay because other ESPN networks won't switch to HD anytime soon.
ESPN will begin archiving clips in HDTV.
The network will air the women's college basketball Final Four in early April. Clips from that event, shown on SportsCenter
this year will be downconverted to standard-definition format. But a year from now, after SportsCenter
converts to HD, viewers with an HD set will see those clips in their native format.
ESPN, of course, hopes the investment it is making will mean that many more viewers will be watching HD by then.