SBJ/December 11 - 17, 2006/Media

When ESPN takes HD to Hawaii, assembly will be required

ESPN will air a college football game from Hawaii in high-definition for the first time, thanks to a makeshift high-definition control room made out of three office trailers.

The broadcast of the Cornerstone Bancard Hula Bowl in HD on Jan. 14 means ESPN will air all but one of its college football bowl games in high-definition this season.

ESPN is ready to tackle the Hula Bowl in
HD, but its truck won’t be making the trip.

Network officials would not disclose how much more they were paying to produce the Hula Bowl in HD. The cost of producing a game in HD is 25 percent to 30 percent higher than standard-definition broadcasts, but Hawaii presents unique challenges because of the difficulty in transporting the HD trucks usually used for producing games to the islands.

ESPN said it had opted against renting a Russian cargo plane for about $400,000 to fly an HD truck over, and shipping a truck to Hawaii was considered too time-consuming.

But after showing all but two of this year’s regular-season college games in HD (the exceptions were both in Hawaii), ESPN felt pressure to show the Hula Bowl college all-star game in HD for the first time.

“It’s important to us to be able to say that we do all college football games in HD,” said Bryan Burns, ESPN’s vice president of strategic business planning and development. “It’s important for us to say that we’re doing all of our bowl games in HD.”

The remaining ESPN bowl game not in HD is also in Honolulu, the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl on Dec. 24. Network executives said the high number of football games around the date made it more difficult to get the equipment over to Hawaii then.

For the Hula Bowl, ESPN hired a company called Gearhouse Broadcast, which agreed to fly several crates of expensive HD equipment to Honolulu for the Jan. 14 game.

The plan has ESPN shipping eight HD cameras and lenses, eight replay machines, a complete audio console, a video switcher and several flat-screen monitors that will make up a makeshift monitor wall. Plus, it will send all the HD support equipment, such as tripods for cameras.

All of the equipment will have to be reassembled in Hawaii. The network plans to ship the equipment Jan. 10 and spend two days assembling it before going through test runs to make sure it’s ready for the game.

“It’s not more cumbersome from a size standpoint. It’s just that the equipment is more expensive than standard-definition equipment,” said Wendell Grigley, ESPN’s senior director of remote operations. “There is no HD equipment that lives out in Hawaii to be able to do this.”

The equipment will be assembled into three office trailers. One will be dedicated to production and audio, one to production and one to video replays.

“If you’re in a normal mobile unit situation, the truck pulls in and everything is already put together. You just turn it on and check everything out and do your basic event,” Grigley said. “In this case, you’re physically putting a lot of different pieces together.”

ESPN’s extra effort to show the post-New Year’s bowl game in HD is a nod to the popularity of HD broadcasts.

Results from an internal survey show that 13 percent of viewers watched a recent ESPN on ABC Saturday night college football game in HD. Of that 13 percent, 32 percent said the fact the game was in HD influenced their decision to watch it.

“Thirty-two percent, in my opinion, is a significant number,” said Artie Bulgrin, ESPN’s senior vice president of research and sales development. “As the base of HD grows, the audience impact will be more apparent.”

ESPN’s HD viewers represent 5 percent of ESPN’s total audience in the 18-49 demo, a number Burns expects to grow.

“Every indication that we have is that the seeds that we have planted over the last few years are now starting to bear fruit and the viewing is being positively impacted by the things that we’re doing,” he said.

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