Living here in Connecticut, I’m not far from ESPN, the self proclaimed, “worldwide leader in sports.” They are located in Bristol, not far from the tall, narrow building used by Otis Elevators as a test center for elevator technology (really – the vast majority of the building is taken up by shafts).
I had been invited by a friend, for lunch. Working in this market so long, I know a bunch of people there. What always strikes me as odd is that people at ESPN also know me. It was a little unnerving, a few years ago, to meet some of their higher profile talent and have them know me.
I last visited ESPN more than 20 years ago. Back then I marveled at their satellite dishes. That was nothing!
As you approach ESPN, crossing from Southington to Bristol, the first thing you see are the immense dishes… and dozens of them. Since we’re pretty far from the equator, and lots of the satellites are really positioned for Europe or the Pacific, most of the dishes are barely pointed above the horizon. It’s a Star Wars scene to say the least.
Inside is just as immense. My TV station looks like a Radio Shack compared to what’s going on at ESPN! With 10 TV networks (ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Classic, ESPN News, ESPN Deportes, ESPN-HD, ESPN Atlantic, ESPN Pac-Rim, ESPN Latin America [Spanish], ESPN Latin America [Portugese] PLUS 24/7 ESPN radio PLUS regional feeds PLUS occasional domestic and international feeds… ESPN.com originates in Bristol as well), the place is hopping around the clock. Because weekday sports is a nighttime thing, the most action takes place during what’s traditionally 2nd shift.
Wherever you look there are edit booths (they’re named by letters of the alphabet, but they recently ran out and had to name the 27th “AA”). Some are traditional with multiple tape machines and possibly a switcher. More and more they are becoming non-linear editing stations where all the audio and video ‘live’ on hard drives and not tape decks.
Keeping a facility like ESPN up-to-date is exceedingly difficult. As you advance the technology, going digital in what was once an analog world, you have to make sure ‘legacy’ equipment still functions and that all the equipment plays well together. I don’t envy the engineers who deal with that. I have seen, as video and audio paths move through different processes, that they tend to move out of sync… so lips flap before (or after) the words come out.
One of the smallest pieces of equipment I saw was one of the most startling. An engineer was splicing fiber optic cable by fusing it using laser light. As the two ends to be connected approached each other, they were displayed on a small LCD screen. Then, the screen went white. As it faded back to the original scene, what had been two pieces was now one. It looked like something out of a James Bond movie.
With all the networks, and all the programming, moving ‘normal’ TV signals around the plant is a major undertaking. The 125 channel in-house cable TV system is about to add a digital tier.
Of course I went to the Sports Center studio. Da da dum, da da dum. It was reasonably large for a studio. Most people see a TV studio for the first time and are immediately struck by how small they usually are. This was larger than it would have to be were it not for the fact that the opposite wall was used as a set for the NFL shows. The studio has three cameras on pedestals and another on a ‘jib’, which enables it to smoothly fly in three dimensions for a little added sizzle. There is a walkway about the flats.
The coloring of the studio and its fixtures seemed a little cold in real life. The desk areas were much too reminiscent of a hip clothing store at the mall. Still, on the air it looks great and that’s all that counts.
The most surprising part of the trip, and ostensibly the real purpose of my going there, was the cafeteria. It looked like something from Vegas, with a pasta station, salad bar and open grill. My friend told me, as nice as it is, people still kvetch. That doesn’t surprise me – though they’re crazy if they do. It is an employees job to kvetch, and most do it really well.