ESPN U.S. Open Mix Offers Something for Everyone

By Ken Kerschbaumer

DirecTV subscribers who are golf fans can once again get their fill of golf coverage from Bethpage Black this weekend, thanks to U.S. Open Mix, an interactive-TV experience that, besides a leaderboard, gives viewers the ability to watch up to four video feeds on one screen. Increasingly a must-have feature for fans and ESPN, it will be available for all four rounds of the U.S. Open.

“The iTV rights were something we included in contracts a couple of years ago, and we were not sure what iTV rights meant,” says Donald Colantonio, ESPN senior director, Original Entertainment-Media Packaging, the iTV service. “But now iTV rights are more prominent, and it’s a consideration in rights agreements as we look to arrange a package of rights as broad as possible to satisfy cross-platform needs.”

ESPN’s U.S. Open Golf Mix began two years ago at Pennsylvania’s Oakmont Country Club as an extension of efforts that began with packaging highlight clips for Verizon Vcast five years ago at Pinehurst in North Carolina. For Oakmont, DirecTV offered a four-channel mix while Dish Network had a six-channel mix (the service is not exclusive to DirecTV). “The original concepts are still in play two years later, and the format for the golf majors includes a players-in-depth channel, a featured group for the first two rounds [the last two rounds have par-three-hole coverage], and a featured group,” says Colantonio. The fourth channel is a simulcast of ESPN or NBC coverage.

Interactive or Web-streamed coverage of major sporting events always leads to concerns over audience erosion, but ESPN and DirecTV are looking at ways to address those concerns by rolling national commercial inventory into the mix subchannels. “That opens up the ability to sell additional sponsorships, have commercials embedded into the sub-channel, or have ads on the background of the mixed channel,” says Colantonio. Given the complexity of last-minute changes in inventory, DirecTV handles the commercial integration in its Los Angeles facility over the phone with ESPN and NBC.

Four Game Creek Video production trailers will be on hand this week to handle ESPN’s HDTV coverage as well as the iTV mix. “It was a priority to integrate all our needs into one facility,” says Colantonio. “The Game Creek trailers will handle all of our SportsCenter coverage and the production of the three iTV channels.”

That integration means not only economic efficiencies but also better programming. Staffers will be able to operate in HD and also share elements like teases and clips on the EVS server network without a lot of effort.

ESPN’s iTV service is coming off the French Open tennis championships and is also gearing up for Wimbledon coverage. The BBC will provide HD coverage of nine courts (later this year, the U.S. Open tennis championships will feature five courts of HD coverage).

Colantonio believes there will be more iTV on the way, especially given the success that NBC Olympics found with cross-platform programming. “That opened a lot of eyes to the potential,” he says, “and now we’re determining which events are conducive to a multiscreen experience.”

For now, that means sports like golf and tennis where viewers can’t see all of the action because of simultaneous play on different holes and courts. For ESPN, the XGames are another natural.

What about the long-time vision of allowing fans at homes to direct their own games? “The multicamera experience has been tested for 20 years, and nobody has succeeded,” says Colantonio. “Our approach is to come up with content that is relevant to the viewer and different editorially.”

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