Tech Executive Outlook

Pagano: ESPN Plans To Be The 4K Leader

The cable sports giant is building a brand new, massive sports production center that Chief Technology Officer Chuck Pagano says will be future proof — able to handle upcoming 4K and 8K production. And he’s also keeping an eye on what’s going on in the broadcast TV world, especially the development of ATSC 3.0 and the pending FCC spectrum auction.

As a young radio disc jockey, Chuck Pagano quickly became mesmerized by the blinking lights behind the glass and decided it was time to get into the engineering side of the radio business.

From there, he made his way to WTXX, a small UHF station in Waterbury, Conn., before migrating to WFSB Hartford-New Haven, Conn., as a broadcast engineer.

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But Pagano’s career took off in 1978 when he was asked by future ESPN Founder Bill Rasmussen to sit in on some early focus groups for what eventually became the popular cable sports network based in Bristol, Conn. Originally, Rasmussen had a vision of creating a University of Connecticut alumni channel and asked Pagano to do some video work for it during his off hours.

“It was a side job for me at the time. What was supposed to be a UConn channel escalated into a new launch strategy in 1979 and I was asked to join the launch team for ESPN that August,” says Pagano, who now is ESPN’s chief technology officer.

Today, Pagano is busy building a brand new, massive sports production center that he says will be future proof for 4K and even 8K productions.

And even though he works in cable, Pagano still pays attention to what’s going on in the broadcast TV world, especially the development of ATSC 3.0 and the pending spectrum auction. TVNewsCheck talked with Pagano about all of that and more.

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An edited transcript:

ESPN is building a production center that will be the new home to SportsCenter and other ESPN productions. Where is that project right now and what’s inside?

We’re still in the middle of building that new production facility, which is about 195,000-square-feet for all digital production of video and audio for whatever media that we want to end up putting it out on.

It’s going to be a facility that will be in addition to our current digital center, which is 140,000 square feet. This facility has additional studios. SportsCenter will be moving there. It will have control rooms, it will have editing facilities, it will have mastering facilities, it will have editorial areas for people who do content preparation for either on air or onto the Web or onto mobile phones or onto ESPN3 or our Watch ESPN product. It is just basically a content engine.

(Editor's note: The video below was shown at ESPN's 2013 upfront presentation and gives a virtual tour of SportsCenter's new home. There is no audio.)

When do you expect it to open?

May 2014 is our target date.

In terms of the technology inside, what are you going to have? 4K? 3D? All of the above?

Luckily, 3D is no different than our current high-definition technology.  So we include that ability as part of the personality of the building. It will be 3D-compliant.

The question on 4K is a rather intriguing one because there is really no standard yet set in the TV space for 4K other than the TV set.  What I have asked my folks to do on the engineering side is to give me a facility whose cardio/pulmonary system, the heart and the core functions behind it — primarily routing and internal distribution — will be format agnostic.

We’re still waiting to get the product road map from many vendors on which way they’re going to go with 4K. We’re still scratching our head here on 4K. How do we do our business as we do it now, but in 4K?

CBS, ABC or NBC primarily have a lot of canned media from Hollywood and then they share it on their networks. That’s an easier task in a 4K world than what I deal with because my stuff is all principally live from a site somewhere. When you start playing around with the numbers, it’s pretty huge as far as transmission of that stuff coming out of a camera.

The native coming out of a 4K camera is like 12 gigabits per second. I have to compress that down into something that’s at least mezzanine quality to get it back to Bristol so I can have multiple generation use of it going into a time forward mode, like recording a master here. So you try to get it down to like 240 megabits per second.  You’re above and beyond a satellite now.

How is that done?

You really have got to do a lot of stuff via fiber and that changes how I do my content origination out in the field big time. I still use a lot of satellite capacity for bringing that stuff back into our facility.

Most importantly, we’re trying to be as future-proof as we can without reinventing the building over again.

My current production facility is all 720p. This next one will be somewhat format agnostic, but the core will all be 1080p. That doesn’t mean I am going to be distributing a 1080p product, but I am going to master it in 1080p natively, but also have a mechanism for me to deal with 4K or 8K in the future with relative minimal disruption in the plant.

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Comments (4) -

Snap Nickname posted over 3 years ago
"From my naïve perspective of watching our statistics and our audience measurement, I don’t think cord-cutting is really an issue for us. It’s all about event programming — watching it live on a 55-inch television. There’s usually no other alternative for people to watch live sports." That really is naïve. Ever hear about Roku? The MLB, NBA, NHL, and MLS have. You're slowly pricing yourselves out of the market.
TVMN Nickname posted over 3 years ago
At $5 and change per subscriber, the highest priced network around, they priced themselves out years ago. Cord-cutting should be a huge issue for them, since they get the biggest slice of the pie. The current cable/satellite model is obsolete.
ChoppedLiver Nickname posted over 3 years ago
That same business model worked really well for ESPN-3D, right? 4K is dead before it is born.
Roger Thornhill Nickname posted over 3 years ago
4K has its place, most notably in theaters where it is already in use. But as someone observed, unless you have a 60" or larger screen, 4K isn't going to make much of an impact. Plus there are frame rate/display refresh issues that have yet to be worked out before the technology would be ready for home use.
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