ESPNU Goes HD, With Help From Three Mobile Suppliers

By Carolyn Braff
ESPNU is graduating to HD, but the network can’t do it alone. Spreading the wealth among three major mobile-production providers -– Lyon Video, Sure Shot, and Token Creek -– ESPNU HD has found the production firepower to produce more than 200 live HD events in its first year, including all of its Thursday and Saturday college-football games.
“We’ve structured it so we’re going to do a little less than half of our total amount of events in HD, as we phase it in over the next year or two,” explains Dan Margulis, director of programming and acquisitions for ESPNU. “We’ll get to the point where it’s significantly more than that, but that’s a pretty big chunk to begin with.”
That HD chunk includes all four windows of live football broadcasts: Thursday nights, which will be dedicated to Historically Black College and University games, and Saturdays at
noon
and
3:45
and
7:30 p.m.
Some Olympic-sports programming will also air in HD, including basketball, lacrosse, baseball, softball, volleyball, wrestling, and hockey.
“We’ll fall into a rhythm of weekly HD college basketball as well,” Margulis says, “but we still have to figure out our schedule on that.”
ESPNU’s HD football schedule kicks off at Miami (Ohio) and includes stops at plenty of campuses that do not top the list of broadcast-friendly facilities, but ESPNU’s site surveys will ensure that every campus that needs to handle an HD telecast will be ready long before kickoff.
“It’s new to us, so we’re going to see what issues are presented to us,” Margulis says. “We are working to see where we can pull off a production in HD and where are the major places we can’t. We have to work closely with production and operations to execute when we want to execute.”
To assist with that execution, ESPNU chose three mobile-production partners to help cover its four football windows and midweek Olympic-sports broadcasts.
“Lyon Video, Token Creek, and Sure Shot will cover the majority of our shows for the first six to eight months,” says Steve Cozort, senior director of remote operations for ESPN Regional Television. “We will also reach out to other vendors that have mobile unit trucks in the industry to cover some of the shows that those three vendors might not be able to get to.”
In addition to Token Creek’s Varsity HD truck, Lyon Video’s Mobile Unit 5 HD truck, and Sure Shot’s Natalie Michele hybrid HD expansion truck, F&F Productions units will be used for selected midweek shows. ESPNU will call on additional production support as needed throughout the season.
Smaller universities generally have smaller parking facilities, so working with trucks that travel without B-units makes maneuvering and parking on these school premises a bit easier.
“Natalie Michele is a smaller combo truck that also carries its transmission equipment with it,” Cozort says. “Token Creek’s Varsity and
Lyon
’s Mobile Unit 5 are both 50- to 53-foot expandable trucks that travel alone, without a B-unit, so they’re a little bit easier to get into some of the smaller schools and the venues we have to get into.”
Most of ESPNU’s football broadcasts are single-day set shoots, but extra tech-setup dates will be added to certain shows, depending on the cable availability on-site.
“Some of the smaller universities might not be cabled completely for a broadcast, so that adds a little extra setup time,” Cozort says. “For most colleges, it’s not like pulling into a Major League Baseball facility. It always presents some challenges, but they’re always willing to help. When it comes to adding in the HD factor, it’s mostly in the truck and the transmission.”
Having a new branch of the ESPN family evolve to HD is a boon for ESPN’s other networks, as a new-technology testing ground has effectively been born in ESPNU HD.
“In its short tenure, ESPNU has prided itself on trying different things that you wouldn’t see on a traditional broadcast,” explains Chuck Scatterday, coordinating producer of college football for ESPNU. “We might put cameras in a different location or shoot a couple of series strictly from the end zone. Some of our Historically Black Colleges have a significant band presence, so we might have a camera isolated over the band and interact with the band director.”
Margulis adds, “We take pride in being the incubator for the other platforms. When there’s new technology being developed up north that’s not quite ready or people are hesitant about trying, why not try it on us? Rather than being ESPN 7, we’re trying to make this a differentiator. We want to learn about the technology here first so that, when it’s ready to be developed on one of the other platforms, we’ve already gone through the lumps.”
Although ESPNU headquarters in
Charlotte
,
N.C.
, is still transitioning to HD, the network will make its HD debut Aug. 28 with a gridiron matchup between Vanderbilt and
Miami
(
Ohio
) at
7:30 p.m. ET.