Winter X Games Live: Aspen, Bristol Once Again Closely Connected Via Fiber Network

After a volatile half-year that saw the Summer X Games relocated from Los Angeles to Austin, TX, and four international X events wiped from the annual slate, ESPN’s X Games production team got a welcome shot of stability Wednesday with the announcement that Winter X will remain in Aspen, CO — hosting for the 13th year — through 2019. However, that’s not the only dose of stability present in Aspen: The production team has continued the modular Global X production model that relies on extensive file-based workflows over a robust fiber network to share media back and forth with ESPN headquarters in Bristol, CT.

The ESPN ops staff: (seated) Larry Wilson, (standing, from left) John Winders, Steve Raymond, Ryan Wentworth, Paul DiPietro, and Henry Rousseau

The ESPN ops staff: (seated) Larry Wilson, (standing, from left) John Winders, Steve Raymond, Ryan Wentworth, Paul DiPietro, and Henry Rousseau

“We’re trying to maintain what we learned with Global X and move forward with all the efficiencies we learned; the only thing that has changed is going from six events to two,” says Paul DiPietro, coordinating director, ESPN Event Operations. “Unlike a [league like] NFL or MLB, if we want to ask anyone if we can try something new here, we ask ourselves. We are chief cook and bottle washer, so we try to take advantage of that and create opportunities to innovate with [workflows] like these.”

Twice the Paths, Twice the Connectivity
ESPN’s X Games workflow, which debuted last year in Aspen, reduces on-site staff and facilities, using Bristol as a de facto IBC (International Broadcast Center) for graphics insertion, features editing, live-feed integration, global distribution, and more. Nearly all of ESPN’s X Games features/editing and graphics-insertion staff and facilities are in Bristol.

“The only staff we have here [from the features/highlights department] are two people that manage our ENG shoots and make sure our videographers are getting the right footage and the right interviews are being done,” says Senior Coordinating Producer Phil Orlins. “Then they make sure it gets digitized and is accessible back in Bristol. But aside from that, everyone is in Bristol now.”

This is all made possible by two 1-GB fiber paths connecting Aspen and Bristol. They not only carry the 13 outbound video feeds and six inbound feeds in Aspen but also provide the backbone for ESPN’s robust file-transfer system. Last year, the second 1-GB pipe was used solely for redundancy, but, this year, it has been opened up and is used as the primary backbone for file exchange with Bristol.

“We always needed that second path for redundancy, but it was ridiculous that it just sat idle,” says Steve Raymond, associate director, event operations, ESPN. “So we wanted to come up with a scheme where we could have a failover plan, so that the services would migrate from one to the other in case of a failure, but we could utilize both paths at all other times.”

ESPN: World-Feed Provider
The X Games team has gone into Aspen with the mindset of a world-feed provider, with the Domestic ESPN telecast receiving the same clean feed as international rightsholders. This year, PCRD7 (Production Control Room D7) at the Bristol Digital Center is integrating the Venue A feed and Venue B feed to build the world feed, to be delivered to 61 countries and territories and more than 405 million homes, with live coverage in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Central America, dozens of countries in Europe, New Zealand and South America.

Downstream from that, PCRD5 is responsible for adding graphics and commentary and integrating the host-set feed (three camera feeds are discretely delivered via flypack to Bristol and are cut together) to create the domestic ABC/ESPN/ESPN2 show from that world feed.

“Eighteen months ago, we had a paradigm shift from ‘the ESPN X Games’ to ‘The X Games on ESPN’, meaning we are concentrating on becoming a host broadcaster that supplies a world feed first and foremost,” says ESPN Operations Manager Larry Wilson. “We are taking it one step further this year by creating a world feed in one location and then a feed for ESPN and all the rightsholders separately. “

Talk to Anyone Anywhere

With a wealth of content passed back and forth between Aspen and Bristol, a comprehensive communications infrastructure is key to keeping everyone in the loop. In Aspen, ESPN has established

Associate Ops Specialist Ryan Zainc helps coordinate the intricate intercom system connecting Aspen and Bristol.

Associate Ops Specialist Ryan Zainc helps coordinate the intricate intercom system connecting Aspen and Bristol.

three separate intercom systems, for a total of 1,1682 ports, and trunks those three intercoms back to the Bristol trunk master, which has 13 intercoms online from around the world.

“With those 13 different intercoms in Bristol,” says Ryan Zainc, associate operations specialist, ESPN Production Operations, “we can talk to Argentina, Mexico, Austin, L.A., wherever we have a connection, from our ESPN facility.”

ESPN is also using 224 MADI intercom channels to tie together local trucks, audio consoles, and BSI’s RF operations. The network has also laid out 128 RVON (RTS Voice Over Network) channels.

File-Transfer Portal Continues To Evolve
With more bandwidth to play with, thanks to the second 1-GB pipe, ESPN continues to advance its EVS portal, which serves as the hub for all file-transfer activity between Bristol and the remote production.

For example, when the X Games team began using the portal, only high-value assets were passed to Bristol, because it wasn’t certain how much content would be needed. However, ESPN is moving toward capturing and transferring everything to Bristol. Program streams and iso angles are automatically recorded to Bristol’s near-line Quantel server, as well as to the central storage system, enabling users to access all the content immediately.

“With the kind of bandwidth that we have available, we are sending pretty much everything back now,” says Raymond. “There is further evolution to take place. We are trying to enhance some of the workflows even more as we move forward. We would like to interface the Bristol-based logging systems to deliver metadata that can be stored on the local database server. We want to capture more metadata that can be delivered from the statistics systems directly into our workflow. Those are kind of phases 2 and 3.”

Beyond X Games
Many of the groundbreaking production workflows developed at X Games have found their way into other ESPN properties; expect that trend to continue.

For example, Monday Night Football deployed a 500-MB fiber path for a similar file-transfer workflow, enabling Bristol editors to built unique packages in-game.

In addition, ESPN will produce a college basketball game from University of Vermont on Feb. 27 by sending all six camera feeds and all effects mics discretely to Bristol, where the show will be cut, audio will mixed, and graphics and commentary will be added.

“We are taking the model of what we’ve done here at X Games with the host set and expanding that a little bit,” says Henry Rousseau, ‎coordinating technical manager, ESPN. “That way, the Bristol control room can mix the entire game — including replay, cameras, and audio — and we only need a sprinter van [on-site]. We have always been a proving ground for a lot of these technologies. Now others are interested in adopting them, and we are happy to oblige.”

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