ESPN’s Interactive Service Aces Expanded Open Coverage

ESPN’s interactive TV (ITV) service at the US Open tennis tournament continues to grow, in terms of both the depth of information offered and the number of clients making that info available to viewers. The service offers a mosaic of all five courts of tennis action both to TV viewers and online, along with score information and the ability to quickly watch a match at full-screen size.

This service was available for the first time to viewers who were not DirecTV subscribers. ESPN’s own ESPN3 broadband video service carried the coverage; AT&T’s Uverse service offered the Tennis Channel court coverage (Courts 11 and 13); and the USTA’s own Website, USOpen.org, passed the signals, complete with graphics and announcers, on to visitors to the site.

“We’ve grown significantly since last year,” says Don Colantonio, senior director of production enhancements for ESPN. “In anticipation of convergence and new ways of consuming media, we are figuring out what we can do by combining a network-quality presentation with the written word.”

The core of the production operates out of Bexel’s BBS-1 trailer, with staffers working with EVS servers, production switchers from Ross and Panasonic, and incoming video and audio feeds from all five televised courts. New this year is the use of a Vizrt graphics system, allowing the iTV team to add scores from other matches to a court’s feed. Social networking is also playing a role, with a Facebook page set up to allow commentators and producers to post comments on the Facebook wall and to answer questions.

One of the highlights of social networking in action was a challenge by announcer Al Trautwig to get viewers to “friend” the ITV Tennis Facebook page. The challenge? When ITV Tennis passed the 500-friends mark, ESPN analyst Luke Jensen would take a bath in the fountains at the USTA Billie Jean King Tennis Center. It worked: the number of friends surged past 1,000 and now stands at approximately 2,400. The Facebook page features video coverage of Jensen’s fountain dip.

The additional carriage deals are calling for some changes in operations. For example, when the show opens each day at 11 a.m., two opens roll: one for DirecTV and another for the other services.

The service also provides branding for the TV channel that has the rights to the courts. During ESPN and Tennis Channel windows, Courts 11 and 13 are branded Tennis Channel while Arthur Ashe, Armstrong, and the Grandstand courts are branded ESPN. During Labor Day weekend, the courts carried by CBS Sports were branded CBS Sports.

The iTV service has also added many non-match elements, such as feature stories and interviews. A dedicated ENG crew is on hand to build iTV exclusives, and BBS-1’s EVS servers are tied into a larger EVS unit, which contains Tennis Channel and ESPN pre-recorded pieces. Two producer/directors in the Bexel production truck then pick and choose elements to be added to the ESPN and Tennis Channel coverage.

“They punch their own buttons, and we run the elements,” says Colantonio.

The deals for additional carriage move the service closer to the day when the next step will be taken: full commercial insertion. This year, commercials were inserted at DirecTV’s Los Angeles playout facility for the two Tennis Channel-branded courts. The other three courts, branded ESPN, do not have commercials yet because ESPN’s advertising-sales and -trafficking systems are too complex to be currently integrated into the service.

“Once we get commercial insertion,” says Colantonio, “we will have some additional sponsorship opportunities.”

In terms of transmission, Origin Digital was on-site to handle engineering and transmission services to DirecTV (via MEG4 satellite uplink); Genesis Networks delivered the service to AT&T and ESPN3.