ESPN's IT Head Depends on Communication, Collaboration

As ESPN fast breaks into the digital age, Technology Executive VP Chuck Pagano is calling the plays. To inspire his team, Pagano relies on communication, collaboration and a one-on-one leadership style.

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ESPN’s success in the digital world now depends on how much it can leverage Pagano’s HDTV bet and capitalize on the center’s technology to manipulate, repurpose and dispense content digitally over various mediums. "The Holy Grail for TV facilities has always been reuse," says Bill Lamb, ESPN’s VP of systems engineering and electronic maintenance. "You make it once and you reuse it as many times as effective."

ESPN is already getting some payback here. Lamb says staffers using the new digital workstations have shaved an hour off producing a highlight package for SportsCenter. It’s hard to get them to go back to the videotape environment once they’ve tasted life in the Digital Center, he says. But despite the jump to digital, ESPN is still using videotape. Production staffers need access to old clips recorded on the network’s more than 1.3 million tapes. Dependency on tape will lessen as more ESPN programs are recorded digitally and more of the 150 programs that flow into ESPN each day from other broadcasters arrive in a digital format.

The center’s ability to provide unlimited access and easy reuse of content is also enabling emerging business models that were not possible before at ESPN, such as Mobile ESPN as well as ESPN360 and ESPN Motion—video-on-demand products consumers get through ESPN.com. This allows the swift delivery of on-air content through other mediums. "We now have the flexibility to manipulate our content in a way that makes sense, whether it’s for an iPod screen or a cellular phone or the connecting game console on your television," says ESPN.com’s LaBerge.

But the transition from analog to digital remains a challenge. "We’re inventing new concepts as we go," says Pagano, who knows first-hand that tapping into new technologies is not without risk. Early in his engineering career at ESPN, Pagano specified and developed a videotape playback device that could play commercials back in an automated sequence. That device ended up not working with ESPN’s existing equipment and was deemed a total blunder. The lesson for Pagano?

"You have to allow people to try different things and learn from their mistakes," he says. "And you have to be there to help them take the heat [when things go wrong]."

Dealing with the Technological Storm

Like other content providers, ESPN is hammering out intellectual property issues using digital rights management, or DRM—technology tools that define distribution and control consumer access to digital content, such as video clips, music and movies. "The good news is that nobody knows what they’re doing. The bad news is that nobody knows what they’re doing," says Vamsi Sistla, director of broadband and digital home media at ABI Research.

The trick is balancing wide, multichannel distribution of content with intellectual property controls that prevent some type of Napster nightmare. "On the Internet, most of the media formats are still in their early stages of development," says Sistla. "There are no established structure, rules and regulations for rights management, Internet browsers, operating systems and device capabilities."

Different devices support different DRM standards—creating a costly and confusing proposition for content providers. "As people move their media from the PC to other devices, such as handhelds and video players, you have to support multiple DRMs," says LaBerge. "You have to commit to one or the other, otherwise your content won’t play." He says which DRMs ESPN will support are a work in progress: "It is something that we are in the process of figuring out."

However, where intellectual property and content are concerned, ESPN’s strategy is clear: "We don’t believe everything on the Internet wants to be free. You can’t necessarily give it all away," LaBerge says. "We believe it’s a mix."

That mix is evident in ESPN.com’s Insider offering—a paid content model that provides access to premium material that fans can’t get elsewhere, such as some of Peter Gammons’ baseball commentary and ESPN’s NFL draft analysis. It seems to be working. LaBerge says the top metric used to gauge Insider’s success is total sign-ups, which has shown steady growth. But ESPN, like others, is still tweaking the pay-for-content model online. Last year it did an about-face and stopped charging for online fantasy football.

As Pagano walks through the Digital Center, he feels humbled by what he and his team are striving to accomplish. "I’m awed every time I go in there," he says. But much like the athletes ESPN puts on display every day, Pagano refuses to admit to feeling the pressure of the big game. "I sleep perfect at night," he says. "The pressure is good. It makes you good."

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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