ESPN Commits to 47 ‘At-Home’ College-Hoops Productions

ESPN will be taking the concept of “at-home” productions to a new level in the coming months as it produces 47 college basketball games from a studio control room in the ESPN Digital Center in Bristol, CT.

“We have done some ‘at home’ productions but not to the volume we are about to embark on,” says Chris Calcinari, VP, remote operations, ESPN.

The first production was a basketball game in Memphis last Tuesday. Seven camera signals with embedded audio (five coverage cameras and two clock cameras) were fed to a studio control room in Bristol. The entire above-the-line staff was at the ESPN Digital Center, where all graphics, replay (via Evertz DreamCatcher), and switcher operations and commentary were pulled together for the final broadcast. A return feed was also sent back to the arena so the referee could access any required feeds for replay review.

“You couldn’t tell the difference, and it was a seamless production for us,” says Calcinari. “The at-home model is legitimate.”

ESPN produces more than 3,000 shows each year so the 47 basketball games are but a small percentage of the overall production picture. But hundreds of five-camera basketball games produced each season, as well as other events that use fewer than eight cameras, are perfect candidates for similar workflows.

“We think that this will grow and be successful, but we need to get through these 47 games and then evaluate it,” adds Calcinari. “It’s really about making sure everyone understands the value of this and also not jeopardizing the quality of the production.”

More than 40 games will be produced in January, providing a perfect opportunity to see how well it scales out. The basketball schedule was matched up with control-room availability to make sure the required facilities were available.

“We have a few days where we will be doing two games in one day,” he says, “and that really increases the efficiency, as we can have one crew and production team doing two games, and that is usually impossible in the remote-production world.

There are three main considerations in undertaking an at-home production: how it will affect operations at the venue, how it will affect the team working in the control room, and ensuring that connectivity is reliable.

“Available bandwidth is a huge reason this works,” Calcinari explains. “Compression technology is in place, and the pipes are bigger. That makes a lot of this possible.”

As for the field operations, ESPN has signed a contract with Vancouver-based Proshow Broadcast to build a small truck and with Los Angeles-based VER to build a small production van. Similar vehicles will be hired as needed to provide additional production support.

Personnel in the field include camera operators; an A2 audio mixer, who sets up microphones; and an EIC, who ensures that the van is parked and powered and all cable runs are in place. A full technical fax is also undertaken, and remote tallies and communications allow the camera operators to communicate with the team in Bristol during the production. There is also someone onsite to coordinate timeouts.

The studio-control-room environment, meanwhile, will closely resemble the energy within a production truck. One additional requirement is that, because the announcers are not at the event, they will be fed a wide camera shot of the court so that they can follow developments that might occur off camera.

“The amount of events we are doing is growing so much,” says Calcinari, “that, if people want to be on the road, they can do that and folks that want to spend more time at home and do TV have an opportunity as well.”

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