ESPN Tackles NFL Draft in Full HD

By Carolyn Braff

Last year, ESPN provided an enhanced presentation of the NFL Draft on ESPN HD by filling in the expanded columns on the 16:9 screen with graphical information. This year, for the first time, the network will provide a true-HD experience: all video content originating from the April 25-26 event at Radio City Music Hall will be produced in high definition.

“HD is a big upgrade for us,” says ESPN producer Josh Hoffman. “I really think it’s going to make the whole presentation a lot more dramatic and compelling. I think that HD Steadicam shot of the player walking onstage and all of Radio City revealed in front of him is really going to be incredible.”

In order to highlight the high-quality video coming out of Radio City, ESPN has redesigned the graphic compression around the main video window, moving all the left-side content to the bottom of the screen.

“This year, there is only graphical information along the bottom and the right,” Hoffman says. “That allows us to make that frame that holds the picture from Radio City in 16:9, so whether you’re watching it on a 4:3 set or a 16:9 set, you’re still going to see that video the way it’s coming out of Radio City.”

In addition to the Steadicam that will follow the players from the greenroom onto the stage, ESPN will cover the draft using four or five cameras on each of two sets, plus a jib, two greenroom cameras, several handhelds, and a couple of beauty cameras scattered throughout Radio City. A behind-the-scenes crew will run ENG cameras around the venue throughout the event, creating bumpers and other elements using footage that the standard coverage does not see.

Back in Bristol, CT, analyst Todd McShay will have a gadget of his own to play with: a Perceptive Pixel board similar to what CNN used for election coverage.

“We’re calling it the McBoard, since Todd McShay will be using it,” Hoffman says. “It’s been designed in a graphic draft application, and his role is really to project out what he thinks is going to happen. With the board, he can project out trades, slide teams around, and predict what’s going to develop over the next 10 picks.”

SportsCenter has had the board in use for several months, but this year marks the first time it will be used for NFL Draft coverage.

EA virtual technology will also be featured. “Tom Jackson did seven or eight segments where he’s walking through the demonstration field with the use of virtual characters,” Hoffman explains. “He shows what these guys are going to be asked to do in the NFL as opposed to what they did in college.”

Player introductions also get a makeover this year, with ESPN combining footage shot at the NFL with green-screen technology.

“We’ve completely redone the look that introduces all the player highlights, [with] the actual player keyed in over green screen,” Hoffman says. “We did a 3D presentation of his stats and numbers reading out from behind him, and it looks fantastic. I’m very excited about that.”

A photographer also shot several hundred rapid-fire still shots during the course of combined workouts, and, with nearly 10,000 photos to choose from, ESPN created some brand-new bumps to use throughout the Draft coverage.

“In those 10- to 12-second pods on the players, you really get a sense of who they are,” Hoffman explains. “It’s remarkable the way the stills capture their facial expressions and personalities. It’s dramatic and looks fantastic. I really think it’s going to be something special.”

This year’s Draft coverage will once again feature videoconferencing with all 32 NFL teams, but, for the handful of big-name prospects who are not traveling to New York, ESPN will dispatch reporters to their locations for live interviews as they are chosen. Topping that list will be USC quarterback Mark Sanchez, who will be live in Southern California with ESPN’s Shelley Smith once he is selected in the Draft.

Despite all the enhanced technologies being coordinated for the broadcast, the toughest part of this year’s production may just be parking the truck. The same NEP HD trucks that ESPN uses for Monday Night Football broadcasts will make their way through the streets of Manhattan to park and expand in very tight quarters.

“The truck driver is going to be the technical superstar of the whole show if he can fit and expand the truck in that space,” Hoffman laughs. “We take up just about the whole street. I’m amazed that they’re going to be able to fit cars through.”

Setup begins Wednesday morning, so the crew will have three days to figure out how to get those cars through before the first team goes on the clock Saturday morning.