ESPN, DIRECTV iTV Service Delivers Every Shot of Longest Match in HD to Viewers

This year, the ESPN Wimbledon iTV service, which allows DIRECTV customers to watch five courts of action at once and then go full-screen for the match the viewer finds most interesting, made the leap to HD. Well, it didn’t take long for the decision to pay off as the epic first round match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut, which lasted more than 11 hours, became a must-watch for hard-core tennis fans who have the DIRECTV service.

“We were able to show them the entire match without commercials, from day one and two that ended in darkness to the third,” says Don Colantonio, ESPN, senior director of Production Enhancements. “It was an extraordinary opportunity to show viewers the drama while giving them a chance to keep an eye on the other matches.”

The match is probably the best example to date of the importance of iTV technologies as a means to allow sports fans to watch history that, otherwise, would not have been available to be seen in its entirety.

DIRECTV subscribers were able to watch every shot of the 11-hour long match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut in HD via DIRECTV and ESPN's iTV service.

For a major national network like ESPN, dedicating 11 hours over three days to a single tennis match is impossible (and especially if the match doesn’t truly become newsworthy until it enters its seventh or eighth hour). But iTV, with its flexible platform and and lots of hard work, changes that equation.

The move to HD required five HD transmission paths to be established between the Wimbledon broadcast center and IMG Media House, a facility in London’s Kensington neighborhood that features a wealth of editing rooms, master control rooms, and more. Origin Digital also has space in that facility and has been integral in working with ESPN on the project. ESPN staffers at Media House, working with a Grass Valley production switcher and four smaller Eyeheight production switchers, integrate ESPN graphics (for the first time built with Vizrt), branding, and feature content with the world feeds that provide match coverage. Content elements are built by ESPN staffers at Wimbledon, exported to tape, and then fed to Media House where they are recorded on a local EVS server. Additional elements are built on an Apple Final Cut Pro editing system owned by Origin Digital that is located at Media House. Graphics are also built at Media House on Vizrt systems tied into the data feeds pumping scores and other information out of Wimbledon.

John Leland, Original Digital vice president of global media operations, is on hand at Media House to oversee technical operations and the transmission paths.

“Upmonitoring is done in SD as those are the only satellite feeds available but we also have six Genesis Networks HD paths that are sub-switched at Media House and then five HD paths leave Media House for DIRECTV in California,” he says.

There is also a unique and cost-effective means of confidence monitoring of the service hitting DIRECTV subscribers’ homes as a Slingbox system installed in a neighbor’s home back in the states allows Leland and company to monitor the end-user experience.

“The only thing that would make this better would be an EVS IP Director but we put our resources into the HD paths between Media House and Wimbledon,” adds Colantonio. But he expects that to change next year when Wimbledon offers outer court HD feeds via satellite, a move that was not done this year as member broadcasters of the EBU are still using the SD feeds of those courts.

“The world feed is perfectly aligned with our plans and we can use our own studio set for shows that otherwise could not sustain themselves on their own,” says Colantonio. “Also we can use talent and editorial, pairing announcers on the subchannels.”

There is also a lot of resource sharing with BBC, provider of the world feed. For example, if the BBC needs an announcer for one of the outer courts, ESPN’s Chris Bowers is available to step in.

“It’s very collaborative and we all come out winners,” says Colantonio.