West Coast fans who have long suspected an East Coast bias from Bristol, Conn.-based ESPN can begin to rest easier, because the cable sports giant is on track to open by spring 2009 a full-fledged broadcast production facility across from Staples Center.
The five-story ESPN building that is taking shape will house an ESPN Zone restaurant on the first two floors and two television production studios with digital control rooms on upper floors. One studio will become home for the late-night edition of its signature "SportsCenter" that now is produced on the busy Bristol campus. ESPN also will house its 710 radio station studios next door in an office building now under construction.
"The scope of this project makes sense on a lot of different levels," said ESPN President George W. Bodenheimer, who was in town last week. "And, frankly, having toured it today, I feel very good about our decision to come out here."
Bodenheimer declined to state the cost of the new building. But, during a groundbreaking two years ago for the entertainment district that will surround Staples Center, television industry insiders speculated that the building would cost ESPN about $100 million.
One broadcast industry engineer recently estimated the cost of digital technology for the West Coast television studio at between $35 million and $45 million, with related construction costs of about $20 million -- not including the restaurant, which will open late next year.
ESPN executives are still wrestling with how to introduce fans to a bicoastal "SportsCenter," with early shows originating in Bristol and the late edition coming from L.A. The network regularly incorporates feeds from studios in New York City, Washington and Charlotte, N.C., but the show's hosts always have been in Bristol.
ESPN hopes to make the switch in a manner that won't confuse viewers. For example, there's a good chance that the two studios will be identical in appearance, and ESPN must decide if broadcasts will be regularly labeled as "live from Los Angeles."
The network that reaches about 94 million U.S. homes has yet to announce what other programming will originate in the new facility. But one studio is large enough to accommodate a studio audience, and Bodenheimer said that the L.A. facility "can only mean good things for ESPN Deportes," the network's Spanish-language channel.
ESPN's television, radio and Internet operations will have about 100 employees here when the facility opens, according to Bob Eaton, ESPN's former managing editor who is overseeing the project as a consultant.
Perhaps the most unusual need? Extra insulation.
"For street noise," Eaton said, "which we don't have in Bristol."
He also said the technology that is being added "seems to change overnight" as digital advances occur. Beyond the studios, which are now little more than big (7,500 and 5,000 square feet, respectively) empty rooms, the upper floors will have more than half a dozen editing bays where crews will piece together video and audio clips.
There also will be a newsroom that will house reporters, editors and others who feed the never-ending demand for instant updates and analysis.
As for the larger studio with room for an audience, Eaton said ESPN isn't sure it would produce such a show, but "it's better to be forward-thinking at this stage."
On the day of the tour, crews were working on the massive air-conditioning ducts, which will counter the heat generated by the studio lighting and wealth of electronic equipment. The walls have yet to be installed, though conduits are in place for the miles of wiring that are needed.
While ESPN's headquarters will remain firmly rooted in Bristol, Bodenheimer said, "We'll be moving some of our highest-potential folks out here."
The network also expects to leverage its proximity to Hollywood to create its own entertainment offerings.
The new studio and restaurant mark the latest in a series of collaborations involving ESPN, a subsidiary of Burbank-based Walt Disney Group, and AEG, which owns and operates Staples Center and theaters and arenas in the U.S. and overseas.
The new broadcast facility is expected to shorten the workday for some in Bristol, where crews now staff the overnight shifts that are necessary to keep ESPN's sports programming fresh. The West Coast facility will be linked to the Bristol studios by digital pipelines that promise to give L.A.-based staffers almost immediate access to content now stored at the headquarters, Eaton said.
ESPN's L.A. facility will incorporate perches in the upper floors where cameras will be able to get a bird's-eye view of downtown, including the pedestrian plaza off Chick Hearn Court that fills up with people whenever there are events at Staples Center and the Nokia Theatre.
The outside views are designed to feed into AEG Chief Executive Tim Leiweke's vision of a gathering place in L.A. that will serve as a backdrop for telecasts. To that end, AEG is equipping a state-of-the-art digital television production studio in the building being constructed next door. That studio, which will boast a huge window to allow cameras a clear view of the plaza, will be made available to visiting broadcasters.
Though the ESPN building is designed to serve in a digital age, there is one decidedly analog element worth noting -- an open staircase that connects the three upper floors.
"We noticed in Bristol that people don't wait for the elevators," Eaton said. "They just take to the stairs if it's one or two flights because it's faster."