ESPN Upgrades Sunday Night Baseball Production to 1080p; Boxing and LLWS Are Next

Several major productions will be moving to 1080p in coming months

ESPN is officially charting its path to a 1080p future, beginning with Sunday Night Baseball. The network, which has been producing Monday Night Football in 1080p since 2013, transitioned its marquee MLB series to 1080p with the Dodgers and Red Sox matchup at Fenway Park on July 14. With SNB upgraded, ESPN plans to make the changeover for its boxing and Little League World Series coverage next month, and more properties are on the way.

ESPN and NEP collaborated on bringing the EN2 mobile production unit to 1080p-capability. (Photo: Phil Ellsworth/ESPN Images)

“We have mapped out a strategy to upgrade several of our shows from 720p to 1080p over the coming months, starting with Sunday Night Baseball,” says Chris Calcinari, SVP, remote production operations, ESPN and ABC Sports. “We will then be rolling out more of our major shows to 1080p over the next six months or so. We now have equipment in the field that can support 1080p, and [the transition] has very little impact on production workflows, while offering a major uptick in quality and resolution. So we’re strategically heading in that direction.”

ESPN has been working closely with NEP and its other technology vendors for roughly eight months to bring EN2, the network’s SNB truck, up to 1080p capability.

“Our [first 1080p SNB telecast on July 13] was flawless, and I think that was because this is a long-term strategy and not a one-off,” says Calcinari. “Over the past few months, we asked every one of our operations teams by sport category to spend the necessary time planning with all of our vendors and with our production counterparts to internally make sure our features were 1080p — making sure our animations and insert graphics are 1080p and going through all of the little details to make sure that we’re prepared for this. That made it much easier to roll out.

Calcinari credits the increased presence of multiformat equipment on mobile units throughout the industry that can support not only 720p and 1080i HD formats but also 1080p and 4K UHD.

“As mobile-unit companies upgrade their fleets and build new trucks, nearly every component on trucks these days is multiformat,” he notes. “I think that has been the biggest change that enabled us to make this decision. When we launched Monday Night Football [in 1080p], we rolled it out with a brand-new truck that was [built specifically] to be 1080p, but a lot of the other trucks weren’t 1080p-capable at the time. Since then, the industry has caught up, and the manufacturers are manufacturing a lot more multiformat gear to make this possible.”

NEP EN2 is ESPN’s production truck for Sunday Night Baseball. (Photo: Allen Kee/ESPN Images)

Although the transition to 1080p is far less complex than it was half a decade ago, several major technical challenges remain. For example, ESPN’s SNB production will require an extra load-in day to deploy the additional fiber connectivity required. In addition, ESPN and NEP had to account for the additional bandwidth required to maintain the same channel count in the replay room and for backhaul of the 1080p signal.

“I would say the three areas that you really need to focus on for 1080p are your cabling, your [replay-]channel density in the tape room, and transmission,” says Calcinari. “You also have to work with all your specialty providers — SMT [virtual graphics], specialty cameras, and things of that nature — so your truck has to carry enough upconverters and downconverters to be able to deal with those sources as required.”

The ESPN remote-operations team is now also working with all its truck vendors to upgrade more of its major live-sports properties to 1080p, including Monday and Wednesday Night Baseball beginning next season.

Graphics and EVS equipment are housed onsite in EN2, but the operators are back at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, CT.

“The nice thing with Sunday Night Baseball is, we’re the completely exclusive [broadcaster], so there’s no home- and away-feed [production],” says Dennis Cleary, director, remote production operations, ESPN. “Next season, since we’re also planning on going to 1080p for Monday- and Wednesday-night games, it’s going to be a bit more complex. We’ll be upconverting [regional sports network] feeds and sharing feeds back and forth. There will be more converting going on, up and down, for those 720p and 1080p signals.”

Last year, SNB began deploying ESPN’s GREMI (graphics remote integration) production model, in which graphics and EVS equipment is located onsite on the truck but the operators are back at ESPN HQ in Bristol, CT — saving travel costs without affecting the production workflow. In keeping with the remote-operations team’s mantra to not impact the live production in any way, SNB will continue using the GREMI model moving forward.

“First and foremost,” says Calcinari, “whenever we’re doing enhancements and innovations, we’re always trying to make sure that we’re improving the product, never taking a step backward in terms of impacting the production. That’s why this is the right time for 1080p: because it has very little impact on the production workflow at this point.”