ESPN Launches Slick New DC Studio for SportsCenter With Scott Van Pelt
Debuting on schedule despite the pandemic, the set is new but familiar
In January, Scott Van Pelt (SVP) announced that he was heading home, shifting the nightly SportsCenter With Scott Van Pelt from ESPN’s Bristol, CT, headquarters to a new studio in Washington, DC, where he grew up. And, even though the pandemic threw the sports-media world for a loop just two months later, SVP’s new DC studio opened on time on Monday with a new yet familiar look for viewers.
“Our goal was to not take anything away from SportsCenter With Scott Van Pelt but only add to it,” says ESPN Coordinating Director Marti Hanzlik. “We wanted to be really careful with the brand. He’s so popular you do not want to mess with that. We just wanted to enhance it. And we tried to do that by giving it the DC feel, but he still has his regular canvas, all of his franchises.”
SVP’s new SportsCenter set has been built across from ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption set in the ABC News Washington Bureau building, in space previously occupied by Around the Horn, which moved to ESPN’s Seaport Studios in New York City in late 2018.
Although Van Pelt and the studio have been relocated to DC, the show is still being produced remotely out of a control room in Bristol. The SVP control room in Bristol is connected to DC through ESPNet (ESPN’s private fiber network) by way of its Seaport Studios in New York City. In addition, because the DC facility is a 720p plant and ESPN produces SportsCenter in 1080p, the end product from DC is being upconverted to 1080p for distribution (signals from Bristol to the monitors bypass the 720p plant and go direct to the monitors as 1080p).
Inside the Studio: Smaller Footprint, Same SVP Style
Although the official announcement came in January, development on the new studio started just under a year ago. During that period, Hanzlik worked closely with ESPN VP, Production, Mike McQuade, who oversees the show, and Senior Director, Studio and Lighting Design, Noubar Stone.
The most apparent challenge right off the bat was to find a way to replicate the look and feel of SVP’s sprawling Bristol studio in a much smaller footprint — a roughly 2,000- to 2,550-sq.-ft. shared space — at the ABC News Bureau in DC.
“Our primary goals going into the launch were how to share a studio space and design a set that was familiar like the Bristol set while giving a nod to DC,” says Hanzlik. “I give credit to Noubar Stone for working with the set-design folks to re-create a new version of Scott’s set in Bristol. Now the studio space is much smaller than what he had in Bristol, but the way it was designed makes it feel just as large with the ability to be more intimate.”
ESPN created scenic walls that represent the environment of DC, such as a granite building reflecting the city’s iconic architecture and a pattern resembling the inside of the DC Metro transit system. DC-focused footage and bumpers will be regularly featured going in and out of commercials. And the program has new theme music recorded by DC-based go-go band Trouble Funk.
The studio features several large LEDMAN COB 1.9-mm LED displays with Novastar NovaProHD processors. These displays are sourced remotely with graphics/animation from ESPN’s new 4K OctoViz platform. Although on-air talent does not have a physical touchscreen in DC, analysts will be able to use Midas software to telestrate their storylines using large LED displays.
Everything on the set is new except for the customary SVP desk props (helmets and a baseball bat) and his favorite desk chair, all of which were moved from Bristol.
“Basically, we took the model of the existing studio [and] gave it a bit of a fresh face but kept the elements that were unique enough that the viewers could relate and that Scott could be comfortable.”
COVID Impact: Ops Team Runs the Show From Afar
Of course, COVID-related health and safety restrictions complicated matters, forcing the teams to manage the project remotely and mitigate onsite issues that traditionally would have been handled from afar. Normally, there would have been one or more site surveys by the engineering and network teams, and additional staff would have been onsite for the integration and final configuration, but the DC studio was closed until the second week of July.
“Travel was limited,” Hanzlik notes, adding, “We had to be creative in our communication and operational workflows to adapt to the split crew and staffing setup. We were able to do all of this while working through the challenges of COVID. The set building vendors worked under unusual circumstances, and Scott’s desk had to be redesigned to accommodate social-distancing mandates.”
In addition, due to the pandemic, production and operations teams have been spread throughout the Bristol campus instead of operating in a single control room, adding further complexity to the live operations. The SVP production team is using Unity comms software to connect to both the control room and the DC facility.
Team Effort: Disney-Owned Properties Come Together for SVP
Hanzlik says the biggest challenge from a technology-planning perspective was aligning all the different departments, including multiple teams within Disney DTCI (Direct to Consumer & International), ESPN, ABC News, and third-party vendors.
In addition to McQuade and Stone, among those contributing to the project were Kynna Randall and Ben Bieglecki with creative-services graphics and animation design; the set-lighting team of Chris Watson and Eric Verrone; DC staffers Howie Lutt, Michael Vettor, and Buck Parr; and Terry Brady of remote operations. Other important collaborators were PCR and Ops Specialists teams from Production Operations and the DTCI Technology team in the technical buildout.
“Making sure everyone is communicating and clear on the project goals and aware of dependencies within each team [was key],” says Hanzlik. “Once again, it’s one of those great stories involving multiple groups. I think it’s a unique relationship.”
Information and quotes for this article were courtesy of ESPN’s Inside ESPN internal website.