Chuck Pagano, Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, ESPN
As one of 3-D TV’s earliest innovators in the United States, sports broadcaster ESPN remains committed to bringing 3-D content to households. Chuck Pagano, who was recently named ESPN’s new executive vice president and CTO, talks about the early trials for the broadcaster in 3-D and the technological challenges it faces in moving forward with the platform.
VIA SATELLITE: What have been the most prominent technological challenges for ESPN since launching 3-D services?
Pagano: From a pure technology perspective, the biggest insight I have seen via this 3-D launch process is that nothing is insurmountable. When we launched it, there were very few vendors with deliverable products that we could take advantage of; that has actually been eradicated. The one thing we have learned from a production standpoint is that less is more. The challenge has actually gone into the rear-view mirror stage. We are always looking for new ways of transporting or distributing 3-D TV. The technology is there. What we are getting ready for is the next phase of sending 3-D TV out to our customers. We have just launched a new MPEG4 product that we are using to transport to our affiliates, and we are making plans to have that included in 3-D via satellite. We don’t have a start date, but we definitely have plans to use that system for 3-D via satellite.
VIA SATELLITE: In previous interviews, you noted that technology vendors were caught off guard by the sudden move to 3-D — how have things progressed since then?
Pagano: Things have gone great. Our vendors have always been there to raise the bar a little bit higher. We got over the initial hurdles, which were really out there at the time of our World Cup coverage. Since then, it has been a fait d’accompli; it is a non-issue issue. We got it done and there are a lot of products available and technological tools that are helping with the 3-D TV effort. It is almost like the status quo, business as usual approach now. The tools are there for us to utilize.
VIA SATELLITE: How are you looking to enhance 3-D technology now that you have these tools?
Pagano: 3-D TV has been a non-core manufacturing process in our shopfloor production. We are now looking at ways of getting that included into the standard way that we do business in our personal complex. What I am talking about are things like production switchers, routing switches and the ability to do 3-D graphics. These are the items on our agenda going forward, and we want to see how we can utilize the best products, practice and technology that is coming out. We were up and running as of January when we launched the 3-D network 24/7. We did more than 100 events in the first year, so we are looking at how we can ramp up the use of 3-D TV technology to make it both a full-time service and a better product for our fans to enjoy. I read a statistic last year from the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) that said there were 1.1 million 3-D TV sets sold, and this year there is forecast to be 1.9 million 3-D TV sets sold. So, little by little, 3-D TV is establishing itself. You cannot go into a consumer electronics store without seeing a 3-D product up on the screen.
VIA SATELLITE: Are there any other key 3-D technological elements that are you are currently seeking from the development community?
Pagano: I don’t think there are. I am just intrigued by where things go above and beyond 3-D TV. 4K television is starting to make its point in discussions in terms of where TV technology is going. But from a 3-D TV aspect, a year ago for us, it was more difficulit to get things from suppliers so we could launch something. Now, things are much improved. We were all running around trying to get this thing launched, but we did not have everything that we needed at the time. Ironically, a lot of vendors were able to adapt and come up with new tools that we could use pretty fast. It is the essence of our industry — they tend to come up with products to put out fires. We had the desire to get as much water as we could. Now, it is a case of where the innovation will happen in terms of making it a richer and higher quality process. That is how we have been doing television engineering from the get-go. It goes through the innovation phase of making it better and making it a richer experience, but we have everything we need, at least from a production standpoint, to make this happen.
VIA SATELLITE: What are your expectations for 4K television?
Pagano: That is the thousand-dollar question. We are trying to figure out where it is going in terms of delivery and which distribution partners are capable of it. There is lot out on the rumor mill from the vendors’ side of the equation, which suggests that they will be introducing a lot of 4K capable television sets in the next couple of years. Our fans are some of the earliest adopters of new distribution and viewing technologies, so somehow we have to figure out a way to be there for them because they will be the first adopters. I haven’t even seen a 4K television in a real good setting yet, but I know it is the next. Our plan is to make sure that we are in that mode so that we are ready for it. 4K will be the next-generation HD experience with perhaps even some 3-D TV involved. But we are just trying to get our arms around what we have to be ready for if it makes its entry in the next couple of years.
VIA SATELLITE: What are your demands for satellite capacity as a result of going to 3-D TV?
Pagano: We haven’t hit the tires on that yet; that will happen as a function of us rolling out our MPEG4 product. It is a function of working with our cable distribution partners. Right now, the majority of our 3-D TV is sent to our partners, such as Time Warner, Comcast and DirecTV, via fiber. We connect to their POPs via fiber and via our facility in Bristol. But we are going to be rolling out 3-D TV on a satellite basis because more and more of the cable systems that do not have direct fiber connectivity desire to carry 3-D TV. I don’t have a final date as to when we will launch 3-D TV via satellite. We are still in the rollout mode of our regular 2-D HD product on the MPEG4 platform. The decision will probably be made some time after the summer, but it could pop-up overnight. It depends on the instructions we get from affiliates.
VIA SATELLITE: What is the timeline for launching the MPEG4 platform?
Pagano: We already have launched MPEG4 for 2-D HD on all of our networks. We are still awaiting the coordination issues of when we will launch it on satellite in 3-D TV. Those plans have not been delineated yet.
VIA SATELLITE: What technology vendors are you working with on the MPEG4 platform?
Pagano: We are working with Motorola. We are in the midst of rolling this solution out with all 2-D and HD products.
VIA SATELLITE: Did you have any expectations of how fast or slow the adoption of 3-D TV would be? If so, were your expectations in-line with what has actually happened in the mass market?
Pagano: I did not go in with a quantified model of expectation in terms of what the growth pattern might be. I always thought this was going to be a developing medium for people to get their arms around 3-D because this was such a different experience. As I said, the CEA said they sold 1.1 million sets last year and are forecasting almost two million this year. I don’t think that is a bad growth rate for something that is still getting its arms around the consumer, especially during this economic climate where people are watching their spending habits. I am actually comfortable with the growth patterns we are seeing today. I still think this is part of an experiment of a magnitude that it will be delivering more stuff as a function of time. 3-D is not going away; it is going to get better every day. You will start to see direct viewable 3-D TV sets in the future. We don’t know when that is going to be, but it will happen. We did some research at the end of 2010 and the results in terms of enjoyment of 3-D TV have gone from 65 percent to 70 percent; our presence went from 35 percent to more than 50 percent. It is just a little bit of a relationship building exercise, and us getting our arms around the things they want to see in a 3-D TV space. By no means am I disappointed with it, and I don’t see the horsepower or wind being taken out of its sails.