To Differentiate Australian Open Coverage, ESPN Turns to Orad

Beginning this weekend, ESPN will present more than 100 live hours of programming from the Australian Open, opening the network’s second broadcast tour of tennis’s four major events. The 2010 Australian Open will be the first presented fully in HD, on ESPN2, and the network is bringing in new graphic elements provided by Orad to differentiate its coverage and help make graphical elements pop like never before.

Second Time Through the Circuit
ESPN completed the first-ever tennis Grand Slam in 2009, broadcasting all four major events on a single network. In its first go at the U.S. Open, Reynolds learned that, once his team had control of the cameras, the system that ESPN built was robust enough to maintain a high level of technical expertise while enabling the production team to get creative with graphical elements.

“Now that we know we’re strong enough to handle both of those responsibilities,” he says, “our biggest goal this year at the majors is to upgrade the highlights and the technology that have become signature to what we do. That’s why we’re investing in the Orad MVP system and why we’re bringing two systems on-site. We think, visually, that component will separate what our product looks like from anybody else right now.”

With support from a server storage system and a “heck of an EVS networking system,” in Reynolds’s words, ESPN will depend on the Orad MVP system to churn out some high-quality graphics live from Down Under.

“Because of the number of courts and the number of broadcast hours, this event is challenging,” says Shaun Dail, VP of sales and marketing for Orad. “ESPN is the lone U.S. broadcaster for that event, and it’s a huge number of matches and courts. We’ll be producing quite a number of clips.”

A New MVP
The Orad MVP system, making its Australian Open debut, will allow ESPN to incorporate such on-court enhancements as ball tracking, the distance players run in a volley, and ace tracks, among other elements. ESPN got a taste of the MVP system during the U.S. Open in New York last fall but will use it differently in Australia.

“We began to think about the MVP system more like an edit box,” Reynolds explains. “We’ve started to think of it like a quick-turnaround edit device that can accentuate, deconstruct, and draw on highlights faster than sending it to a conventional edit-suite render engine.”

Typically, highlight clips are sent to an edit suite to be styled and processed and can require upwards of 10 minutes of work before they are ready to be shown. In the meantime, analysts must use their words to tell viewers what to look for. Instead of a conventional replay, Reynolds says, the MVP system will allow the ESPN team to add telestration and accents to highlights in a way that could previously be incorporated only into halftime or post-game shows.

“The MVP System will allow us in the server-based tape area to process clips faster, so we can highlight plays from the previous game or set,” Reynolds explains. “We can turn it around in a 90-second or one-minute break and come back with highly stylized or accentuated highlight to intelligently show what we’ve previously relied on analysts to tell us.”

Reynolds expects to tap a specific tape producer to understand what the analysts are looking for and use the MVP system to quickly edit a clip, using the animation, telestration, slow motion, and tracking elements that Orad provides.

“Rather than waiting through a quarter or halftime, as typically is the model now if we’re building highlights,” Reynolds says, “we want to accelerate the curve and get these stylized elements in faster.”

Beyond Ads on ADVision
Orad’s ADVision system will also be used by ESPN, not for advertising placement but for player names.

“On the courts, rather than using a conventional Viz graphic to identify who’s in the near court and who’s in the far court, we’re going to look at the ADVision platform to embed pertinent graphics,” Reynolds explains. “We’ll start with cross-court identification and then see if there is other quick, pertinent statistical data that might be valuable and see if we can figure out an impactful way to embed it.”

All the graphics will be run off of Orad’s Playmaker replay server, and two Orad employees will be on-site in Australia to ensure everything runs smoothly.

Flipping the HD Switch
The switch to high-definition does not pose any changes to the production team, because ESPN’s plant was running in a switchable configuration a year ago.

“We were doing everything from HD processing last year,” explains Jamie Reynolds, VP of event production for ESPN. “We just didn’t have the pipe turned on. It was really more of a transmission issue for us last year, but we’ve got all pistons firing in HD right now.”

Tennis in 3D?
Orange and France Télévisions worked together to produce the 2009 French Open in 3D. With ESPN’s new 3D channel slated to come online midway through 2010, will tennis soon be on the channel guide?

“I’d be surprised if we didn’t try to dabble in it or experiment in it with somehow in conjunction with the USTA toward the end of the summer,” Reynolds says of tennis in 3D. “I would hope that we would. There’s a lot of energy and resources being thrown at 3D. The biggest problem is, how are you really going to produce it with only one or two trucks around the country right now?”

ESPN has demonstrated its 3D-production expertise with such sports as X games and college football, so Reynolds is confident that the team can make a compelling product out of 3D tennis.

“The question is, when do we really start putting a plan in place?” he asks. “When do we start going to different stadiums and look at seating areas that we’d ask the event to give up? We’d want to put cameras in different positions than the conventional camera positions to accentuate the 3D coverage. It’s a three-dimensional chess board to make 3D work.”

For this year, two-dimensional coverage of the Australian Open on ESPN2 begins Saturday Jan. 17 at 7 p.m. ET.