The cable sports giant is building a brand new, massive sports production center that Chief Technology Officer Chuck Pagano says will be future proof — able to handle upcoming 4K and 8K production. And he’s also keeping an eye on what’s going on in the broadcast TV world, especially the development of ATSC 3.0 and the pending FCC spectrum auction.
Pagano: ESPN Plans To Be The 4K Leader
As a young radio disc jockey, Chuck Pagano quickly became mesmerized by the blinking lights behind the glass and decided it was time to get into the engineering side of the radio business.
From there, he made his way to WTXX, a small UHF station in Waterbury, Conn., before migrating to WFSB Hartford-New Haven, Conn., as a broadcast engineer.
But Pagano’s career took off in 1978 when he was asked by future ESPN Founder Bill Rasmussen to sit in on some early focus groups for what eventually became the popular cable sports network based in Bristol, Conn. Originally, Rasmussen had a vision of creating a University of Connecticut alumni channel and asked Pagano to do some video work for it during his off hours.
“It was a side job for me at the time. What was supposed to be a UConn channel escalated into a new launch strategy in 1979 and I was asked to join the launch team for ESPN that August,” says Pagano, who now is ESPN’s chief technology officer.
Today, Pagano is busy building a brand new, massive sports production center that he says will be future proof for 4K and even 8K productions.
And even though he works in cable, Pagano still pays attention to what’s going on in the broadcast TV world, especially the development of ATSC 3.0 and the pending spectrum auction. TVNewsCheck talked with Pagano about all of that and more.
An edited transcript:
ESPN is building a production center that will be the new home to SportsCenter and other ESPN productions. Where is that project right now and what’s inside?
We’re still in the middle of building that new production facility, which is about 195,000-square-feet for all digital production of video and audio for whatever media that we want to end up putting it out on.
It’s going to be a facility that will be in addition to our current digital center, which is 140,000 square feet. This facility has additional studios. SportsCenter will be moving there. It will have control rooms, it will have editing facilities, it will have mastering facilities, it will have editorial areas for people who do content preparation for either on air or onto the Web or onto mobile phones or onto ESPN3 or our Watch ESPN product. It is just basically a content engine.
(Editor’s note: The video below was shown at ESPN’s 2013 upfront presentation and gives a virtual tour of SportsCenter‘s new home. There is no audio.)
When do you expect it to open?
May 2014 is our target date.
In terms of the technology inside, what are you going to have? 4K? 3D? All of the above?
Luckily, 3D is no different than our current high-definition technology. So we include that ability as part of the personality of the building. It will be 3D-compliant.
The question on 4K is a rather intriguing one because there is really no standard yet set in the TV space for 4K other than the TV set. What I have asked my folks to do on the engineering side is to give me a facility whose cardio/pulmonary system, the heart and the core functions behind it — primarily routing and internal distribution — will be format agnostic.
We’re still waiting to get the product road map from many vendors on which way they’re going to go with 4K. We’re still scratching our head here on 4K. How do we do our business as we do it now, but in 4K?
CBS, ABC or NBC primarily have a lot of canned media from Hollywood and then they share it on their networks. That’s an easier task in a 4K world than what I deal with because my stuff is all principally live from a site somewhere. When you start playing around with the numbers, it’s pretty huge as far as transmission of that stuff coming out of a camera.
The native coming out of a 4K camera is like 12 gigabits per second. I have to compress that down into something that’s at least mezzanine quality to get it back to Bristol so I can have multiple generation use of it going into a time forward mode, like recording a master here. So you try to get it down to like 240 megabits per second. You’re above and beyond a satellite now.
How is that done?
You really have got to do a lot of stuff via fiber and that changes how I do my content origination out in the field big time. I still use a lot of satellite capacity for bringing that stuff back into our facility.
Most importantly, we’re trying to be as future-proof as we can without reinventing the building over again.
My current production facility is all 720p. This next one will be somewhat format agnostic, but the core will all be 1080p. That doesn’t mean I am going to be distributing a 1080p product, but I am going to master it in 1080p natively, but also have a mechanism for me to deal with 4K or 8K in the future with relative minimal disruption in the plant.
Will the new production center use virtual sets?
I wouldn’t call the new SportsCenter set virtual by any means — it’s large and physically impressive. We use virtual technologies to attend to our sports fans.
Are you experimenting with 4K? Is there an ESPN 4K channel planned at this point?
We’re playing around with it. We are using it as a tool and doing high definition, like scan and zoom. Using 4K tools in high definition production is the focus here and hopefully you will be seeing the fruits of our labors at some point in the very near future.
I am not actively working on a 4K channel. I am still trying to figure out the pieces and the variables if I ever did get that request to do a channel. 3D was a lot easier because it was just utilizing current high-definition technology, but you’re operating it in stereoscopic mode, two channels left and right.
Let’s talk about 3D. Walking around this year’s NAB Show, it was no secret that 3D was practically nonexistent. That was completely the opposite three or four years ago. ESPN was the first to do a 3D channel. What’s the state of ESPN 3D today? Is it still a viable part of the business? [Editor’s Note: ESPN confirmed to TVNewsCheck Wednesday that it is shutting down its ESPN 3D channel at year’s end. The interview with Pagano took place in May.]
We’re still actively involved in pushing it as best as we can right now. We’re still doing an awful lot of time on producing events in 3D. We’re still innovating in that space and trying to figure out how to raise the bar for experiences to our fans and our customer base.
I think at some point 3D will evolve as part of a 4K infrastructure when you start seeing some of the TV sets that will be out there that do not have the eyeglasses in front of them, but truly has a lenticular lens in front of the set that you can watch stuff without glasses. So, by no means do I think it’s dead. I still think it’s going to be an important part of where we go.
Just as high definition has evolved to 3D, 3D may evolve into the 4K with different sorts of events. Some may be stereoscopic, some may be ultra-high-definition.
Our primary readers are broadcast television folks, including engineers who produce live, over-the-air television. As an engineer who works for a cable network, how much do you pay attention to things like the development of ATSC 3.0?
It definitely has an impact on helping my thinking because our broadcast brothers and sisters out there are still a very innovative side of the business. On ATSC 3.0, I am intrigued that they included a requirement for ultra HD. I’m intrigued that they’re doing a test down at WNUV in Baltimore to see how do you get the payload necessary over an ODFM transmission to the consumer directly now.
What about the pending spectrum auction and channel repack coming up in the next year and half or so? Do you believe that there is a spectrum crunch and that the wireless industry needs that extra spectrum? What does it all mean for ESPN?
This is sort of like a seesaw problem for me because our fans and our customers who are watching us on portable devices always need more bandwidth for the experience to be as robust as possible. Let’s face it, we’re going into a very video-centric era of our evolution and more bits are always a good thing for video performance.
But, on the other hand, I also recognize, from my electrical engineering background, that spectrum is certainly limited in certain aspects and that it’s a precious resource. Sometimes giving it up for one side has an impact on another.
For example, we still don’t get the same performance on the new DTV stations with rabbit ears at the house that we did with good, old-fashioned AM television in the analog world, but that’s a trade off for improvement.
I think it’s necessary, especially for our sports fans, but it also helps bigger issues. I am sure the FCC is doing a wonderful job…. In fact we’re actually helping with that process because our mandate here is to serve our sports fans and our sports fans are fairly mobile and want to watch things whenever they want to watch it on devices other than television.
There has been legislation on the table pushing for an “á la carte” cable plan. Is there a business model, or will there ever be a model for ESPN, where cord cutters — people that supplement over-the-air television with things like Netflix and Hulu — can enjoy live ESPN for a monthly fee via an app or Smart TV?
From my naïve perspective of watching our statistics and our audience measurement, I don’t think cord-cutting is really an issue for us. It’s all about event programming — watching it live on a 55-inch television. There’s usually no other alternative for people to watch live sports.
The 2013 NAB Show wrapped up in April. Do you attend those shows today?
I didn’t go this year. I go every other, maybe every other two years. I find that NAB is a little bit too large for my personal satisfaction. I notice when I go every couple of years I am able to pinpoint on a sector. I will definitely be going next year because that’s when I think you are going to see more strategy along the lines of 4K and where 8K will probably be going in the future as a potential future production standard.
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