Tennis

ESPN’s second year as US Open host broadcaster brings refinements, more viewer choices

NEW YORK – A year ago, ESPN became the exclusive domestic media partner for the US Open. All coverage in the US came from ESPN.

It was a great success.

Along with that enormous responsibility, ESPN was now the host broadcaster. ESPN was not only airing the matches, the network was responsible for the baseline, “agnostic” production of all the matches around the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center for use by all the networks on site from around the world.

We learned a lot last year. The changes are many. Nothing sexy, but many upgrades, fixes and enhancements that make life easier, work smoother and the finished product better.”
– ESPN’s Terry Brady

Certainly, lessons were learned and now Year Two has brought a smoother operation, more efficient workflow, better ergodynamics and improved communication.

“We learned a lot last year,” said Terry Brady, director, remote production operations. “The changes are many. Nothing sexy, but many upgrades, fixes and enhancements that make life easier, work smoother and the finished product better.”

Without being too technical, the EVS workflow was adjusted, the layout of the Central Apparatus Room – the CAR, “the hub of everything” according to Brady – was redesigned to better cool the equipment, different bases for cameras on courts were acquired and the RF system for Arthur Ashe Stadium was adjusted to account for when the new roof is closed. Also, feedback from control room personnel led to design changes with ergo dynamics in mind.

Much of the changes were done knowing that ESPN will maintain its position with the final tennis Major of the year until at least 2025. That’s nine more years to make the effort worthwhile.

“We permanently cabled 30,000 meters in our broadcast center,” Brady states. “Much of that makes people’s jobs easier day-to-day, but it also will reduce the set-up time going forward.”

ESPN also took advantage of the enormous redesign of the south end of the complex – including new fan promenades and walkways, not to mention the new Grandstand Court – to install permanent underground fibre-optic cables.

There are 1,300 fibre-optic paths now. We took advantage of the USTA’s construction to make the grounds more broadcast-friendly.
– Brady

“It was a massive project,” Brady says. “There are 1,300 fibre-optic paths now. We took advantage of the USTA’s construction to make the grounds more broadcast-friendly.”

Even the “RailCam” – a robotic camera that moves silently along the base of the wall behind the player on the southern end of Ashe Stadium for a super ground-level look – now moves smoother and faster thanks to longer pieces of rail.

Even before the first ball was in the air, ESPNers and viewers alike enjoyed one change – ESPN took over the audio mix for Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day. The one-hour entertainment special was taped last Saturday and aired Sunday on ABC.

“Rather than being provided a full audio mix from the house, we took the music mix and the individual audio stems and mixed it ourselves,” Brady explains. “It made editing the show easier for our people and resulted in a better sound for the viewer at home.”

Brady sums up the difference between Year One and Year Two thusly: “It’s still complicated. It’s still a huge project and very complicated. But the difference is last year we didn’t know what we didn’t know. Now we know.”

More to watch on Watch

For 2016, fans have more choice on WatchESPN for the US Open. For one thing, there are now 12 courts to choose from, up from 11.

Another addition allows the fan at home to pretend they’re a journalist. No, they can’t ask questions of the athletes, but for the first time they can sit at home (or wherever!) and watch live the post-match press conferences.

The press conference room feed always had been provided to the journalists at their cubicles. Seeking to provide a “second-screen experience,” ESPN pursued the idea to put the Q&A sessions on WatchESPN.

But simply taking that very primitive product – one camera and poor sound – wasn’t going to suffice.

It is now a full production, with four cameras, two of which are robotic and operated from the control room right behind the front wall behind the dais. Also, the USTA upgraded the audio by installing a system of microphones in the ceiling which activate based on who is speaking amongst the rows of reporters.

It’s even now offered to the networks from other countries covering the Open.

Senior production manager Thomas Kintner oversees the operation.

“The trick in this environment is to quickly locate the reporter asking the question and then to anticipate the end of their question so we can get back to players by the time they start talking,” he explains. “It’s a basic operation, but we use graphics to drive viewers to what’s up next and when – it’s a better service to viewers than making them wait while showing an empty chair.”

Just as ESPN’s production is billed as “First Ball to Last Ball,” Kintner describes the daily offering as “First Q to last A.”

– By Dave Nagle

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