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DIRECTV, ESPN Raise the Bar on US Open Mix Channel

September 6th, 2011 Posted in Uncategorized

By Brandon Costa, Associated Editor

Much like the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, coverage of the US Open is expanding, and DIRECTV’s exclusive bonus coverage has grown, too.

DIRECTV, in partnership with ESPN and Tennis Channel, brought fans eight days (Aug. 29-Sept. 5) of exclusive coverage of the outer-court and early-round matches. This year has also seen the return of the popular US Open Mix Channel, which now provides up to six matches at a time in high definition in a mosaic format.

Upgraded Tech
The addition of Court 17 was the biggest change for many broadcasters at this year’s Open. For ESPN’s ITV crew, it meant not only a new window on its mosaic but a revamped technical approach.

“We are producing five feeds for the broadcast platform and DIRECTV at one time, with ability to switch to the sixth court for an important match, particularly one that involves an American,” says Donald Colantonio, senior director of content development for ESPN. “It’s pretty noteworthy for us.”

With six shows to produce, ESPN ITV changed from five individual switchers to a single multi–mix-effects switcher. The Sony MVS-7000X allows the crew to split the M/E, providing a single monitor working with a single switcher sending all of the truck’s feeds out.

“In the past, it was five individual switchers with our producer/directors switching a group of those,” says John Leland, VP of global media operations for streaming-video-services provider Origin Digital. “This is more effective.”

New Court 17 is coming back to the truck entirely via fiber optics, with the audio transmitted through a fresh Lance Designs system to a new Calrec audio console.

“ESPN has done a great job and built a whole new infrastructure,” says Leland. “It’s very smart of them, and that has meant we are more of a freestanding entity.”

The expanded operation allowed ESPN to make the ITV truck more technically independent. With its own internal router and communications system, ITV may utilize all of what the main ESPN network production has to offer, but it packages it in a whole new way.

“In my mind, editorially, it’s always an extension of ESPN,” says Colantonio. “Technically, it may be more self-sufficient, but, editorially, we are looking for every opportunity to repurpose the great elements that the network and production unit create. We’re striving to stay close, get closer, and utilize all of the editorial strengths and resources that we have.”

Beating Irene
As with all of the operations at Flushing Meadows, the arrival of Tropical Storm Irene just prior to the opening of the tournament wreaked havoc on the setup process for the ESPN ITV crew.

Under ideal circumstances, setup begins Friday and continues through Sunday, with a rehearsal to prep for Monday’s opening matches. With the storm forcing the USTA to close the facilities by 3 p.m. on Saturday, ESPN ITV was up against the wall. Unable to return to the center until 5 p.m. on Sunday, crews had to work a few hours that night before returning in the early-morning hours of Monday.

“It put us behind in terms of all of the little things, plus it’s a brand-new system, so we had to rethink the workflows in some small ways,” says Leland. “That had to be sorted out on Monday.”

It also became a significant challenge to overcome the lack of air travel and public transportation in and out of New York City due to the storm. For ESPN ITV, the executive producer, technical director, and Vizrt operator all had their travel plans severely affected.

Leland acknowledges that, while the Mix Channel did not have all the features and capabilities the crew had hoped for on Opening Day, but he is very pleased with the ability of his crew to get up and running.

“The storm threw a big monkey wrench into it, but we didn’t miss any courts, we did not miss any play. It went a lot better than even we had hoped on Sunday night,” says Leland. “It’s because of all the pre-work that was done by ESPN and everybody that we made air.”

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