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ESPN will embark on by far its largest 3-D TV production yet for the Winter X Games in January, showing continued bullishness in the emerging but widely debated technology when many others are backing away.
The outlet will devote 34 3-D TV cameras to its winter action sports event, roughly twice the number of cameras it has used for 3-D TV events such as the Masters and last July’s Summer X Games. The effort will be a fully integrated TV production in which the standard 2-D high-definition feed will be extracted from footage originally shot in 3-D.
3-D hasn’t taken off the way HD did before it, but ESPN continues to use it.
Photo by:GETTY IMAGES
“There are a lot of things that are coming together in our favor,” said Phil Orlins, ESPN coordinating producer for 3-D and the X Games. “The 3-D camera technology continues to get smaller and better, enabling us to have more positions like flycams, overhead cams, robotic cameras and so forth with no compromises, and that’s really important.
“But this is also an event that really lends itself well to 3-D. You have competitors generally going in a predictable path, and this is something where you really don’t understand everything they’re doing, such as how steep these hills are, the undulation of the terrain, without the additional depth that 3-D provides.”
ESPN’s embrace of 3-D TV increasingly flies in the face of flagging consumer interest. Global sales of 3-D TVs reached 6.6 million units during the third quarter, according to retail tracking firm NPD, up 27 percent from the prior quarter. But that same report acknowledged questions about the lack of 3-D content and services, and questions remain among many industry observers about how often the 3-D technology is actually being used.
Among the issues commonly cited as problems are 3-D TV-induced queasiness and headaches, and the lack of a universal standard among set manufacturers for 3-D glasses. The glasses themselves are frequently seen as impediments to the inherently social nature of watching sports.
Meanwhile, 3-D TV will have a featured role next month at ESPN’s first booth at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. ESPN will conduct an invitation-only screening there of the BCS national championship game in 3-D TV, and will also produce “SportsNation” in 3-D from the show floor, marking the network’s first studio show to be telecast in the enhanced format.
“We’re certainly not oblivious to the perceptions out there right now, the confusion over glasses and costs and so forth,” Orlins said. “But we still believe in the content experience, and it’s our view that in a lot of cases thus far, the content experience has not been done right. When people see 3-D actually done properly, the reaction is vastly different, and one where they immediately say they have to have this in their homes. Sure, we see all the problems and challenges still out there, but we also see all the magic.”
ESPN 3D, its dedicated 3-D TV channel, is available in about 60 million homes through Comcast, DirecTV, Time Warner Cable/Bright House and Verizon FiOS.
The tranquil streets of Winston-Salem, N.C.’s downtown arts district are nearly barren on a fall Saturday in November. But behind the doors at IMG College is a beehive of broadcasting activity that will feed the nation much of its college football and basketball on this day.
The occasional passer-by curiously peers into the front window, where one of IMG College’s showcase studios is visible from the sidewalk. It’s just a small taste of what’s happening deeper inside the company’s headquarters, from which up to 400 hours of broadcasting are produced on a weekend when football and basketball overlap.
IMG College’s 42 studios produce up to 400 hours of radio broadcasts on a weekend.
Photo by:JULIE KNIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY
In one sound cubicle, producer Cabell Philpott works the soundboard, cues up the advertising and provides score updates during sponsored breaks on Georgia’s eight-hour broadcast, counting pregame and postgame. For Georgia’s 12:30 p.m. kickoff, Philpott reported for work at 7:30 that morning and the pregame broadcast went live at 8:30. He has one of the longest days of any of the producers.
In another cubicle close by, Tony Castricone does the same for listeners of the Notre Dame broadcast. Later on, producers working games for the UCLA and Washington networks will be in the studio until the wee hours of Sunday morning to accommodate the later West Coast start times.
These multitaskers must have the technical know-how to handle production, as well as the radio voice to go on the air when they update listeners with scores and news in the pregame, and during breaks and halftime as the game goes on. While the play-by-play and analyst voices at the stadium focus on the game, the voices in Winston-Salem keep listeners informed with what’s happening around the conference and the country.
Some of the producers are fresh out of college and hoping to launch a career. ESPN’s Carter Blackburn started this way, as did Cory Provus, voice of the Minnesota Twins. Others use the weekend work to supplement their income from other jobs. One young producer travels from Ohio to Winston-Salem each weekend just to get the air time.
Learfield, another large multimedia rights holder, has a similar approach; 22 studios produce games at its Jefferson City, Mo., headquarters. In November, the number of games produced on a Saturday at Learfield can range from 30 to 40 given the overlap of football and basketball.
“The intent has been to corral all of our audio into one place so that we can better control the sound and the branding of the broadcasts,” said Chris Ferris, vice president of audio at IMG College. The audio division encompasses all sound that goes to radio, online or mobile apps.
Before IMG College moved into its new office in Winston-Salem’s downtown arts district in 2007, it had a much smaller studio location in a house off Country Club Road just north of downtown. But when IMG College President Ben Sutton built the new headquarters, he included ample studio space, which already has been expanded. The studios take up a significant portion of the first floor in the three-floor building.
From that centralized location will come more than 30,000 hours of radio programming — everything from games to coaches’ shows — during the course of the year. That programming goes out to most of IMG’s 80-plus college clients and their radio affiliates.
On a recent weekend of football and basketball programming, the button was hit on more than 12,000 commercial spots. In a year, these broadcasts bring in close to $100 million in ad support across all of the schools, the company said.
“We can control the spots and the sound, whereas if we had 60 broadcasts being produced from 60 different locations, it would be a lot more difficult to manage,” Ferris said.
The radio broadcast is just a portion of what multimedia rights holders do for schools nowadays. Twenty-five years ago, before rights holders were selling integrated sponsorships, signage and hospitality packages, the radio broadcast of football and basketball games was all that they had to sell. That’s how Learfield’s college business got started, broadcasting Missouri games. Jim Host started Host Communications — later it was acquired by IMG College — by broadcasting Kentucky games.
Radio broadcasts now are but a piece of a much larger media and marketing puzzle for companies like Learfield and IMG College, but they remain one of the most important ways for a school to connect with its fan base.
The Georgia broadcast is among the longest, with four hours of pregame, a three-hour game and an hour of postgame. South Carolina’s pregame is three hours.
By centralizing most of its radio broadcasts at the IMG College headquarters, the company has an easier time auditing the ads that run and creating monthly reports that are sent back to the advertiser. Without the centralized method, account reps would have to call 60 different producers.
“Producing broadcasts from our own studios means we have a pool of talent and resources working together to offer sponsors consistently high-quality programming,” said Doug Gillin, senior vice president, collegiate property sales at IMG College. “With that comes the ease of centralized trafficking and administration.”
The LPGA aggressively is going after larger audiences in Asia with the launch of new websites in Korea and China and a new TV deal in Japan.
“We’re looking to grow every place that makes sense,” said Brian Carroll, the LPGA’s vice president of television and emerging media. “These will be key elements in our ability to expand what’s already a global tour.”
New sites in Korea (at right) and China will contain much of the content from the U.S. site.
Wowow, a premium network in Japan, will carry about half of the LPGA’s tournaments on its pay sports and entertainment channel. Most of the events on Wowow will be the LPGA’s international tournaments.
Like most traditional arrangements, the network will pay a rights fee and the LPGA will provide the telecast. The five-year deal was negotiated by IMG Media and will put those tournaments in Wowow’s nearly 20 million households. The network, which also carries the NBA, professional tennis and soccer, will present LPGA highlights packages and other shoulder programming during the season.
The rest of the tournaments, mostly U.S. events, will be broadcast by Japan’s Golf Network, which has formed a broadcasting partnership with Golf Channel Japan. Golf Channel carried those LPGA events in the past, but under the new arrangement, the rest of the LPGA package will be televised on Golf Network, which reaches 7 million households in Japan, compared with 2.5 million on the former Golf Channel Japan.
“That puts us in much better shape in Japan from a TV standpoint,” said Carroll, who joined the LPGA from the PGA Tour a year ago.
The new websites in Korea and China will be branded as LPGA properties and will feature much of the same content as the LPGA’s official site in the United States, except it will be translated and published in the native languages of those countries. Each of the sites also will have the resources to create its own unique content, most likely featuring players from that country.
In Korea, the LPGA has partnered with J Golf, the network that also has the tour’s TV rights, to create the website. J Golf has had the LPGA’s Web rights as part of its broadcast deal since the start of 2010 but had not activated them until now.
The website in China is a partnership between the tour and Sina, an information and entertainment portal in China that is often compared to Yahoo! in the United States. Sina also operates the PGA Tour’s website in China.
It was during a conversation with LPGA partner Rolex earlier this year that the watchmaker recommended Sina to LPGA officials, and a deal was eventually struck to start a site in China.
The LPGA has just one golfer from China — Shanshan Feng — but the tour anticipates that number growing in coming years. The LPGA also had planned a tournament this year in China, but it was canceled.
In addition to operating the LPGA’s site in China, Sina has a micro-blogging feed similar to Twitter called Weibo. At least seven LPGA players have linked their feeds so that any posts they make to Twitter also are posted on Weibo.
Most of the advertising inventory will be controlled by the local partners in China and Korea, but the LPGA will have access to some of it for its sponsors, Carroll said.
The traffic from Asian viewers on LPGA.com has grown from 1.2 million page views in 2008 to nearly 6 million this year, giving Carroll reason to believe the new language-specific websites will draw well.
“There is some financial upside, but it’s much more about growing the fan base and planting seeds in these countries, especially China,” Carroll said.
As ESPN’s top content executive for the past 12 years, Skipper showed a willingness to spend handsomely for some rights, including the NFL and various college conferences, for example. He also allowed ESPN to be outbid on other sports rights, including the NHL, Olympics and World Cup.
Don’t expect Skipper to change that strategy when he takes over next month as ESPN’s sixth president since its 1979 launch.
John Skipper, unlike George Bodenheimer, is always ready with a quip and a quote.
Photo by:GORT PRODUCTIONS
ESPN insiders insist that Skipper’s move will not lead to significant changes. Executives throughout the sports world expect their dealings with ESPN to remain basically the same. Considering the growth ESPN has experienced during outgoing President George Bodenheimer’s tenure, it would be silly to make significant changes in how ESPN approaches the business.
It’s clear that Bodenheimer and Skipper share the same business principles. But their personalities are so different, it has to mean that a different tone will be coming out of Bristol, doesn’t it?
In nearly two decades of covering ESPN, I can’t recall a single “bulletin board” quote from Bodenheimer — even at the height of ESPN’s most public battles with cable operators. Skipper is different, always ready with a quip and a quote.
Jim Miller, best-selling author of the definitive ESPN book, “Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN,” says that he expects the tone coming out of Bristol to change eventually, but he doesn’t expect any change to occur until after Skipper names his replacement as the head of content at the network.
“One of the most important decisions will be who Skipper puts in as his No. 2,” Miller said. “One of the most important decisions is how he organizes the company.”
Miller, who spent nearly three years virtually embedded with ESPN to research his book, sees three internal candidates as possibilities to replace Skipper: John Wildhack, executive vice president of programming acquisitions and strategy; Norby Williamson, executive vice president of production; and Rob King, senior vice president of editorial, digital and print media.
The uncertainty surrounding Skipper’s choice prompted me to recall a piece written by New York Times columnist David Brooks a couple of years ago. Brooks wrote about a study that identified the common traits exhibited by the most successful CEOs. The study, called “Which CEO Characteristics and Abilities Matter,” found that executives with good people skills don’t always make the best CEOs. Conversely, the study found that boring executives who focused on balance sheets generally were more successful.
Brooks wrote: “In other words, warm, flexible, team-oriented and empathetic people are less likely to thrive as CEOs. Organized, dogged, anal-retentive and slightly boring people are more likely to thrive …
“The CEOs that are most likely to succeed are humble, diffident, relentless and a bit unidimensional. They are often not the most exciting people to be around.”
Bodenheimer appears to have many of the characteristics that make up a successful CEO, by that measure. His calm-and-steady stewardship of ESPN saw amazing growth. With his outgoing personality, Skipper filled a role that seemed to perfectly complement Bodenheimer.
My question is whether Skipper, as president, will adopt Bodenheimer’s calm-and-steady approach. Or, will he look to his new head of programming and production to fit that role?
John Ourand can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.