ESPN Looks To Refine, Innovate During 12th Season of NBA Coverage

ESPN will mark a dozen years of NBA basketball when the network tips off its hardcourt coverage tomorrow with a double-header in Brooklyn and Los Angeles. Since 2002, ESPN has gradually built up a sizable battery of unique production elements — in-game coach/player/ref audio, ultra-slo-mo cameras behind the backboards — with the goal of bringing viewers closer to the action on the floor.

This season, ESPN is bringing back these production staples while experimenting with several potential additions, such as Sony’s F-55 4K camera and virtual billboard graphics.

“Our Emerging Technology guys do a great job,” says Wendell Grigely, coordinating director, remote production operations, ESPN. “Much of the equipment we are using this year is the same, but we try to do a few different things at times. And we have been working on some new [production elements], and we will continue to do so.”

4K Remains on the Bench — For Now
ESPN dipped its toe in the 4K waters, rolling out a Sony F-55 during the Eastern Conference Finals and NBA Finals in Miami last season. The F-55 was used in an effort to pull out close-up HD-quality replays from the overall 4K frame (similar to its application thus far on football and baseball shows).

“We have experimented with the F-55, and we have gotten some great results but not a lot that has made air coming out of the playoffs,” says Grigely. “It’s a work in progress, so we will continue to refine it and evaluate.

“But I think, in basketball — rather than football, where you have very structured plays and timeouts — it will be tough to get a lot of those replays, because the NBA is such a fast-moving game,” he continues. “It has to be the right event captured in the right moment, so it’s all about the positioning of the camera and making sure that action comes into the frame for it to be effective. You spend a lot of time and effort, but you may not always get the result. So you have to weigh that with the effectiveness of the camera.”

Virtual Graphics on the Horizon
ESPN is also experimenting with the use of virtual billboard graphics, which allow the production team to insert virtual sponsorship elements that provide the illusion that they are actually present in the arena. The network is developing two workflows for the virtual graphics (which have become commonplace on X Games and have been used on a handful of other ESPN telecasts): in one, graphics insertion is done at the B unit on-site; in the other, in takes place back at the Bristol broadcast center.

“We played around in preseason with virtual billboard graphics,” says Grigely. “I was in the truck during the preseason in Boston, and I thought it looked great. I think it’s promising, something that the league is obviously very interested in as well. We are using it primarily for sponsor elements thus far, but we have also tested it for running time and clock.”

Wired-for-Sound Audio, I-MOVIX Ultra-Mos Return
ESPN is also bringing back two elements that have become signatures of its NBA A-game coverage in recent years: the “wired-for-sound” audio package (in-game miking of coaches, players, and officials) and I-MOVIX ultra-slo-mo cameras behind both backboards.

ESPN works with the league to outfit coaches and players with ultra-miniature wireless RF microphones from Quantum5X. Audio is transmitted back to the truck and packaged for playback coming in and out of breaks.

“It’s a great feature that has become almost expected these days,” says Grigely. “A key component is your A2s and your audio team, their ability to react when you have 10 or 15 minutes to wire up a coach or a player. If your people are experienced and prepared, you can get a coach set up quickly and seamlessly, which is what the coach or player wants. Our A2s work diligently to make that as seamless as possible.”

Although in-game, on-court audio is now a standard fan expectation, the NBA and ESPN continue to seek out smaller and smaller mics.

“We are also working with the NBA for smaller packages of mics that they have been championing so that it becomes easier for players to wear them. They are working on it right now, and, as the season progresses, we may have more news on that.”

Although the I-MOVIX ultra-slo-mo cameras will not be used on opening night or in many of the early games, they will be behind the backboard glass for high-profile games throughout the season — capturing one-of-a-kind shots of action in the paint and around the rim.

“We are going to try to get the I-MOVIX into as many games as possible,” says Grigely. “It’s a great angle shooting through the glass. We think that has become one of our signatures and it’s a mainstay, so we are going to try to get that into as many games as possible.”

ESPN’s A game will again deploy nine cameras, including two Sony 3300 super-slo-mos, and six EVS production servers for replay as it did last season.

ESPN’s NBA coverage kicks off with the revamped NBA Countdown at 7 p.m. ET on Friday followed by the Miami Heat at the Brooklyn Nets at 8 p.m. and the San Antonio Spurs at the Los Angeles Lakers at 10:30 p.m.

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