With International Expansion on the Horizon, ESPN To Dramatically Revamp X Games Production Model

Last week’s 18th installment of the Summer X Games in Los Angeles was the end of an era for ESPN’s production team. The planned global expansion to six annual events in five countries will dramatically alter the X Games production model starting with Winter X 17 in January. While production plans are still very much in the development phase for the X Games global expansion, the traditional broadcast center will likely be eliminated in favor of a new modular philosophy that will allow ESPN to conduct much of its postproduction and integration operations out of its Bristol, CT, headquarters.

“There are a lot of moving parts, and we don’t have a clear picture of exactly what it’s going to look like yet, but we know this [broadcast center] will all disappear,” says Steve Raymond, associate director – event operations. “The intent is to not decrease the production value in any way, while also taking cost into account. The challenge then becomes streamlining the operation and making it transportable. And [the broadcast center] is not transportable.”

A Production Model That Works in Any Language
Beginning in 2013, Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil (April); Munich, Germany (May), and Barcelona, Spain (June) will join Aspen, CO; Tignes, France (March); and Los Angeles as annual X Games host sites. With that in mind, ESPN plans to put “the big white tent” (where the on-site temporary broadcast center has traditionally been housed at Summer and Winter X Games) in the rearview mirror. In its stead, ESPN will adopt a production template that can be replicated in each of these new international locales. To avoid the skyrocketing travel and on-site production costs that come with doubling their yearly events, only the most integral ESPN staff and gear will remain on-site, with a large bulk of the workflow moving to Bristol. 

“We are handling all the TV production for the international expansion events, and we are going to pass a lot of it through Bristol,” says Phil Orlins, ESPN 3D and X Games coordinating producer. “We are trying to develop a very consistent workflow. You will probably see a lot less on-site — even for the domestic events, because we’re moving toward a workflow where editing is taking place for both the international and domestic events out of Bristol. We certainly don’t want to have this big of a footprint and this large of a travel plan in place for events in Brazil and Europe.”

This remote-broadcast-center model has been used by ESPN at several major international events over the years; most recently, at the 2012 Euro Championships in Warsaw, Poland. However, those events each had the benefit of a host feed from which ESPN could derive the majority of its live coverage. The X Games, on the other hand, require ESPN to produce the host feed in-house, further complicating the prospect of producing the Games with a trimmed-down on-site staff and operation.

“The global model will consist of acquisition at the remote and integration in Bristol, meaning we would become the world feed and then do the integration back in Bristol,” says X Games Technical Manager Larry Wilson. “We also need to figure out how to handle the clients on-site [at] the remote that want the world feed and don’t want to have to get it from [Bristol].”

Keys to Success: File-Based Workflow and Local Vendors
The key to the success of this new workflow lies in two elements that seem contrary to one another but are equally important: the advance of file-based workflows between the remote and Bristol and developing relationships with local production vendors and crew (especially in remote locations like Foz do Iguaçu).

“We will move more toward file-based workflows to make the integration with Bristol easier,” says Raymond. “We will be moving completely over to a lo-res proxy workflow. In the beginning, we will have to support both baseband and file-based workflows as we develop this model. Baseband is secure, and, as we have found out, file-based workflows are not 100% reliable yet. That becomes even more complicated when dealing internationally.

“As for what we will do on-site, we are going to use plenty of regional vendors, but we will also build out some backbone infrastructure to make sure all of our needs are taken care of,” he continues. “We have an idea of what those pieces are. We immediately saw that flying out all this [gear and personnel] was not an option due to the logistics involved, so we have to start looking at what we absolutely need in terms of gear. We are starting to get an idea of what those pieces are.”

The Elephant in the Room: Standards Conversion
Hosting an event in five countries with the intention of producing and transmitting much of the programming via a single location in the middle of Connecticut presents one obvious issue off the bat: standards conversion. And while no official decision has been made, ESPN acknowledged that it is currently exploring the idea of producing all X Games programming in 720p60 (ESPN’s native format in the U.S.) and sending it back to Bristol, where the home-base team will perform all standards conversion for international distribution.

“[Producing everything in 720p] could end up making the most sense,” says Raymond. “If we were to be producing everything on-site in 1080i50, for example, then everything that goes back to Bristol would have to be converted, which could create a pretty big headache.”

More Countries Equals More Ad Potential
With X Games in a total of five countries, ESPN also opens up potential new advertising revenue streams that take advantage of these new regional markets. Although still in the very early planning stages, ESPN is exploring the possibility of inserting branded Neartime and Realtime Virtual Effects into different markets’ telecasts, allowing multiple sponsors to immerse the viewer in their product during the actual telecast.

“We’re testing those workflows right now,” says Orlins. “Not only does it look great, but it obviously has the potential to create some valuable sponsorship opportunities. If a company wants to give the impression that they are part of all six events, we can make that happen virtual graphics.”

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