ESPN Splits Its Screen for Wrestling Coverage

This year, for the fourth time, ESPN will split its personality — or at least its screen — for coverage of the NCAA wrestling championships. Two of four quarterfinal matches and both semifinal matches will be telecast in a side-by-side format, which requires some creativity on the part of the director but allows viewers to watch two matches simultaneously and all in HD.

Testing, Testing, Side by Side
Five years ago, the production crew was forced to jump from mat to mat, attempting to predict where the most compelling match would take place. Beginning in 2007, however, a side-by-side production was tested for the semifinal round, and the quarterfinals followed suit the next year.

“When you do full-size video, you’re always making half the crowd happy and half the crowd miserable,” explains John Vasallo, senior coordinating producer. “The side-by-side diminishes the video size for the viewer but gives the viewer the choice of which match to watch. We’ve had great success with it.”

Fitting the HD video into two on-screen boxes requires coordination among several groups at ESPN. The creative services group developed the two-box graphic as a graphic source. The graphics operator in the production truck can then choose to display the two boxes either stacked or staggered.

Once a display format is chosen, the miniboard (clock and score) shrinks and lines up alongside the corresponding video box, so that each match has accompanying scoring data. On set day, the technical director aligns each match’s cameras with the corresponding box, then cuts the video into the appropriate place during the broadcast.

“We have just one director, and he allots a certain number of cameras on one box and a certain number on the other,” Vasallo says. “He works with his TD to cut each match within the two boxes, and they handle it beautifully.”

The HD-SD Grapple
This year, ESPN is using a new version of the two-box graphic that maximizes the viewing area for the HD viewer while remaining safe for SD.

“That’s something we’ve been experimenting with on college football and NBA,” Vasallo says. “How do you show a two-box layout that’s picture-safe for somebody in SD but, if you’re watching in HD, also maximizes the box room on the left and right side of the screen? That’s a tweak that we made for this year, a redesign of those boxes to elongate them a bit horizontally. That way, if you are watching any of our shows in HD, the experience is maximized for you.”

Relying on Broadband
Because ESPN must protect the 4:3 viewer, going to a four-box setup for the quarterfinals would be tough. “That’s why our colleagues at 360 are involved in the quarterfinals,” Vasallo says, “so they can bring viewers to any of the four quarterfinal matches. We’ll pick two that we preselect to put in the dual imagery.”

ESPN360.com, ESPN’s broadband network, will simulcast ESPNU’s presentation of the quarterfinals on Friday.

Going Roving
This year, the production team will have seven cameras to work with for both the semifinals and championship match, including an RF handheld that is new for this year’s production. The Qwest Center Omaha in Omaha, NE, is slightly smaller than other arenas that have hosted this event in recent years, so adding an RF camera will add some additional color to the broadcast.

“We try to add a wrinkle each year,” Vasallo says. “The last three years, we went to wireless audio, and, this year, we’re using the RF camera. The floor itself is a little smaller than in past years. You can still get all eight mats together, but the area around the perimeter of those mats is a little bit tighter, so the fact that we have an RF handheld is going to allow us to get around a little more nimbly.”

The NCAA wrestling committee, he points out, is more forward-thinking than most, which makes ESPN’s requests for add-ons, like miking the officials and using an RF camera to rove around the mat, far more palatable.

“They’re a great group to work with on a lot of these little initiatives because they really want to see the sport grow,” Vasallo says. “When you as a broadcaster say, can we experiment with this, they’re almost always supportive. That’s made it a lot easier to take chances.”

ESPN will air the entire championship tournament in HD. The quarterfinals is slated for Friday March 19 at 10:30 a.m. ET and the semifinals at 7 p.m. on ESPNU HD. The finals will take place on Saturday March 20 at 7:30 p.m. on ESPN HD.