ESPN Brings Live Sports Into the Studio for New SportsCenter

By Carolyn Braff

They say nothing beats live TV, and beginning August 11, ESPN hopes America agrees. Starting the first weekday of the Beijing Olympic Games, ESPN’s 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. ET block, which is currently dominated by SportsCenter reruns, will now consist of six hours of live SportsCenter programming. “The beauty of this place is we’re on all the time,” explains Norby Williamson, executive vice president of production for ESPN. “We’re on linear television networks, radio, digitally – the assets are there so it’s really the challenge of the management team to deploy them.”

ESPN is using all of its technology assets to ensure that the content airing on the show at 9 a.m. is not still running at 2 p.m. For highlight packages, the chronological game clips that power the 1 a.m. edition of SportsCenter will not be the basis for the live shows. Editorial teams now have 8 or 9 hours after the final out to tease out story lines, build fresh recaps and go into graphical depth that is impossible on deadline for the 1 a.m. show.

“This opportunity will force us to be even more creative with how we do highlights,” Williamson says. “It lets us get out of the game chronology and tell the story in a broader spectrum. We’re going to have an opportunity to take some chances.”

At the heart of the production of the live shows is ESPN’s Digital Center, a massive hub that connects not just linear television, but also digital and radio properties.

“The Digital Center allows us so many bells and whistles,” Williamson explains. “The Chicago radio station and the New York radio stations are coming through there. The opportunity to punch in with a four-to-six minute live excerpt, because we’re in coordination with the Michael Kay show at 1050, and give the tenor and feel of New York and the Yankees, that is huge for us.”

The Digital Center also allows for added on-air interactivity with espn.com and the new SportsCenter.com, also set to launch August 11.

“People want what they want when they want it, and they also want to talk, push, blog and engage with products,” Williamson says. “We think the digital center and the new format will allow people to do that.”

While the original plan was to produce nine hours of live SportsCenter coverage Monday-Friday, beginning at 6 a.m., the team decided that holding off until 9 a.m. would allow for a bigger impact.

“We know that in the 6-9 a.m. block, highlights, game reports and looking backward will still be dominant,” Williamson says. “We’re still going to have the opportunity to update those three hours, but we’re going to focus our energy and our resources where we have the opportunity to do more storytelling, to integrate the radio, to go beyond.”

Beginning the live coverage three hours later also better caters to West Coast viewers who are far more likely to tune into show at 6 a.m. than at 3 a.m. In addition, beginning in April 2009, Sports Center will go live from ESPN’s new facility in Los Angeles at 1 a.m. ET. That show will re-air between 5 a.m. and 9 a.m., leading into the live coverage hosted in Bristol, CT.

As for finding something to talk about for six hours a day, every day, Williamson is not worried.

“Filling time has never been a problem for this company,” Williamson says. “To be totally honest with you, that’s the least of our concerns.”

To get ESPN viewers excited about the live format, the network turned its in-house advertising live, as well. Live 30-second spots star 25-year-old programming coordinator Steve Braband in his everyday life, both on the ESPN campus and off. ESPN has two dedicated camera crews that follow Braband around with a camera and either a wireless or shotgun microphone. In-house shoots are connected directly to the plant but off-campus shoots are a bit more complicated.

“Everything that’s done off campus is done via satellite trucks,” explains Aaron Coleman, senior coordinating director of production for ESPN. “We’re KU-ing it up to the bird and back down to our house.”

Having two separate crews, one for in-house and one for out-of-house spots, allows time for set-up, “and if we need to we can even bounce back and forth between in-house and out-of-house,” Coleman says.

In addition to the camera and audio operators, a crew of up to seven people is on site whenever Braband is on air, in locations that thus far have ranged from his desk, to a local bowling alley, to his living room couch.

“We do a lot of live programming here, but this takes it a little bit out of the norm,” Coleman says. “It’s good to give everybody some time to flex their creative muscles. The tag line for the spots is ‘More work for us.’ Yes, this is a little bit more complicated for us, but it’s pretty cool. Everybody’s enjoying it.”

All of Braband’s spots, as well as the official countdown to SportCenter live, are available at steveislive.com.