ESPN Takes to the Skies — and the Pipes — at US Open

When it comes to nature’s fury at the US Open, ESPN VP of Event Productions Jamie Reynolds has seen it all: hurricanes, tropical storms, hail, and, yes, even earthquakes. So, as the remnants of Hurricane Isaac hit the USTA Billie Jean King Tennis Center this week, it’s just another day at the office for Reynolds and his production team.

“It’s funny how rinse-and-repeat it all is. We’re here going through the same dynamic as last year on the second Tuesday and Wednesday at the Open,” he says. “We had the earthquake during setup last year; then we had [Hurricane Irene] after that; and then we had the remnants of another tropical storm as well. It’s become part of the fabric of this event, so we have really learned how to power through it.”

All weather issues aside, ESPN continues to increase its presence at the Open, this year adding a second SpiderCam aerial system at the Tennis Center and amping up ESPN International’s coverage, while deploying new file-based workflows that allow ESPN to conduct more production work than ever out of its ESPN Digital Center in Bristol, CT.

“We have continued to enhance the structure, stability, and robustness of our entire compound here,” says Reynolds. “But this year, we have also established [new file-based workflows] in order to function more efficiently and more easily push files back and forth between here and Bristol.”

A Trio of Control Rooms
ESPN has erected three control rooms at the Tennis Center: ESPN Domestic is based in F&F Productions’ GTX-16 (featuring a Grass Valley Kayenne switcher), ESPN International is housed in a built-out control room based on a Sony MVS7000X switcher, and ESPN ITV (which supplies the multiview feeds for DIRECTV and ESPN3) has set up shop in GTX-14. ESPN ITV completed its coverage on Monday, so ESPN will move into GTX-14 this weekend when CBS takes over primary match coverage.

Among these three operations, ESPN has 17 EVS XT2 and XT3 servers on top of the 17 EVS servers deployed by CBS. In addition, ESPN is using 30 EVS IPDirectors throughout the compound.

SpiderCam 2: The Two-Point System
In addition to the three control rooms, ESPN has a total of 54 dedicated cameras (in addition to the world-feed cameras) and five Panasonic P2-based ENG crews. This complement is headlined by two SpiderCam aerial systems: a four-point system at Arthur Ashe Stadium and a two-point system covering the grounds.

The four-point system has become a staple of ESPN’s Grand Slam tennis coverage over the past three years (as well as of the world feed, which is allowed to share it), but the two-point system is a first for ESPN. The network considered debuting the new system at Wimbledon earlier this summer, but, because of various time constraints and Olympics considerations, the two-point SpiderCam was stalled until the Open.

“We had been successful in moving the four-point SpiderCam system between the U.S. and Australia, so we had already been working to create a two-point system that could enhance all the majors,” says Reynolds. “We then saw the opportunity here at the Open when SpiderCam told us they had the system ready and could get the system from Europe to New York. We decided to pull the trigger on this new system.”

Although it is a two-point system, the new SpiderCam is capable of dramatic changes in elevation just like the four-point system, which was key for ESPN. At both anchor points, a motorized winch passes four Kevlar cables (two of which are fiber strands) through a pulley attached to one of the stadium’s light poles. The fiber cables facilitate communication between the physical system and Spidercam’s X-Y-Z coordinates software.

“The difference in functionally is that it has the ability for dynamic elevation change that we did not have in the past [aerial coverage of the grounds],” says Reynolds. “This offers us more diversity and elevation change. I don’t think we’ve even seen the full range of what it’s capable of doing yet, but, as a first step, it has been very impressive.

ESPN Brings @Home Production to Queens
While the additional SpiderCam may be the most eye-catching addition to ESPN’s operation, the most groundbreaking is surely the new back-and-forth file-based workflow between Queens and Bristol. This “@home” production model allows ESPN to minimize costly on-site gear and personnel, while also having extensive access to its library in Bristol.

“So much of our library is up in Bristol, and the news/information groups want to use content that we’ve used here, but playing it back in real time has become arduous and difficult, whether it be melts, highlights packages, or press conferences,” says Reynolds. “So we effectively now have a 200 MB path between Bristol and the venue that allows us to push files back and forth, rather than having to play long-form elements back and forth in real time.”

After debuting at the NFL Draft in April, the transmission kit that enables this workflow continued to evolve during its work at Euro 2012 in Warsaw and ESPN International’s Olympics coverage in London. The kit includes primarily Ericsson encoders and decoders and Snell conversion gear, and more can easily be transported, set up, and tied into ESPN’s global fiber network. Now in its fourth official outing for ESPN, the kit is likely to become a regular for the network’s coverage of major events, such as the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.

“This system allows us to leave the majority of our [content] in Bristol as a mirrored library so we can bring something over the morning of the match and process it here on-site,” says Reynolds. “At the same time, instead of ramping up five edit suites here, we can have a lot of that content created in Bristol and sent here. It really changes the way we create content and tell the story.”

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