ESPN Sets Out on NBA Playoffs Journey With Plenty of Production Weaponry

The NBA Playoffs tip off this weekend, and ESPN is once again conducting its annual scramble to cover a total of five games on two networks. Final matchups and telecast windows weren’t solidified until Wednesday, forcing ESPN’s remote-operations staff to organize mobile units on the fly.

“The remote-operations NBA staff was in the office late Wednesday night into the wee hours of the morning,” says Wendell Grigely, coordinating director, remote production operations, ESPN. “The biggest challenge is to get the crewing assignments finalized and travel booked and making sure people know where they are going. The mobile units have been holding, and we gave them the final go last night.”

ESPN is relying on both Game Creek Video and NEP Broadcasting to provide a total of five trucks for five games on Saturday and Sunday, three on ESPN and two on ABC. In addition, the network will deploy a host of tech toys, production enhancements, and studio programming during its two months of multiplatform NBA Playoffs coverage.

NBA Playoffs Return to the Great White North
One new wrinkle in ESPN’s NBA Playoffs plans is the presence of the Toronto Raptors, who are making their first postseason appearance since 2008. ESPN is working with Game Creek Video to secure the necessary mobile facilities and gear for the Raptors’ home playoff opener Saturday against the Brooklyn Nets.

“The most challenging location logistically is Toronto, as we have not been there in a long time,” says Grigley. “Game Creek is taking care of the customs details. We also have to ship in our extra equipment, such as extra EVS [replay servers], above-the-rim [robotic cameras], and Vizrt graphics units.”

Game Coverage Beefs Up With Ultra-Mos, 4K Zoom
ESPN will deploy a total of 11 cameras, including the two above-the-rim robotics and one super-slo-mo for the typical NBA Playoff Game, along with six or seven EVS replay servers. That number goes up to 13 cameras and two super-slo-mos for games airing on ABC. In addition, ABC telecasts will feature an I-MOVIX ultra-slow-motion camera behind the backboard and looking through the glass, which has become a staple of ESPN/ABC’s A-game coverage. As ESPN builds up to the Conference Finals and Finals, the camera count will jump to more than 30, including six high-speed cameras and Skycam; the EVS count, to 19.

ESPN deployed Sony 3300 super-slo-mo cameras during the regular season, but, after a successful test last week in Indianapolis, the network will also be using the new Grass Valley LDX XtremeSpeed 6X ultra-slo-mo cameras into the rotation. The high-speed cameras — unveiled last week at NAB 2014 and already in use by Root Sports Rocky Mountain — are integrated with a K2 Dyno replay system and feature an AnySpeed dynamic-playback algorithm for smooth playback at any speed from zero to 200% and in speed transitions for ultra-slow-motion 6X playout.

After testing 4K zooming during the 2013 postseason, ESPN began using EVS’s Epsio Zoom application more frequently during the 2013-14 regular season. Epsio Zoom 4K zooming allows a replay operator to scale any 16:9 region within a 4K frame to HD in real time, creating clearer close-ups of controversial calls on key replays.

As was the case during the regular season, ESPN will mike players, coaches, and refs in-game (when the individual agrees to it) as part of its Wired package. The network uses Quantum5X ultra-miniature wireless RF microphones, which transmit audio back to the truck, where it is packaged for playback coming in and out of breaks.

Studio Programing Hits Stride in Time for Playoffs
After much turnover the past two years on ESPN’s primary studio show NBA Countdown (see HERE and HERE) is hitting its stride just in time for the Playoffs. It’s not just the talent that excels in the Playoffs, however, as the production team will look to go the extra mile during the postseason coverage.

“Once the NBA Playoffs begin, we become much more in touch with the event production team to maximize the content that they provide,” says Coordinating producer Bruce Bernstein oversees ESPN’s NBA studio programming include NBA Tonight. “The game trucks generate a lot of material that we then repurpose in different ways. For example, we will use video that they shoot with their I-MOVIX camera, wired content and sound, all-access material and so on. We try to leverage what comes from the trucks to enhance  our studio shows.

ESPN’s Studio presence will only increase from here on out, as NBA Countdown will be produced on-site during the Eastern Conference Finals and the Finals, while SportsCenter will be on site during the Finals.

“For studio coverage, we start early in the morning when we look back at what happened the night before and then we transition throughout day to look ahead to the next game, says Bernstein. “During the Playoffs, because there are fewer games, we also try to do more technical breakdowns to highlight why a key play happened and provide more analysis around specific moments.”

Beyond the Big Screen
Of course, like any major property in which ESPN owns the rights these days, the Playoffs are about much more than the big screen. In addition to the linear telecast, all ESPN games will be available via WatchESPN, while ABC games are available via WatchABC and ESPN3. and ESPN Mobile will also supply hoards of original content in the coming weeks surrounding each Playoffs series.

“This is such a big focus for us right now,” says NBA deputy editor Henry Abbott. “We’re going to have multiple original videos every day on TrueHoop TV and TrueHoop Live, which will preview games and take questions from readers. We also have ESPN analyst Tom Penn providing some deeper analysis in original videos called Penn Station.”

In addition, ESPN will feature ‘THE TEN’, a mobile-friendly, heavily-curated presentation of team-specific storylines and issues that is chalked full of original ESPN Digital video.

“Sometimes television time is constrained, but on the website we can take it further and do so through video,” says Abbott. “We are trying to give fans very smart, concise, fun-to-watch content that will make them better informed to watch the NBA Playoffs.”

ESPN and ABC’s NBA Playoffs coverage tips off this Saturday with the Brooklyn Nets at the Toronto Raptors at 12:30 p.m. ET on ESPN, followed by the Golden State Warriors at the Los Angeles Clippers at 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC.

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