Wowing Them With Hi-Def

Oct 13, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Bryan Burns has 15 televisions in his home. He has two in each bathroom and more remote controls than he can count.
Mr. Burns truly appreciates a quality television viewing experience. So just imagine his reaction when he first saw a high-definition display in the late 1980s. He said he felt what he called “the wowing effect.”
Today, as VP of strategic business planning and development for ESPN, Mr. Burns is charged with spreading that wowing effect across the country as he heads ESPN HD. The channel, launched last March, has signed carriage agreements with cable and satellite companies controlling roughly 70 percent of multichannel households.
Not that all those households have the technology and know-how needed to view his network, and therein lies the challenge: Mr. Burns not only has to establish and program a network but also explain how and why viewers should watch it. It’s reminiscent of the dilemma long faced by advertising agencies designing commercials for set manufacturers-how do you showcase a superior picture in a commercial viewed on a customer’s existing TV?
One solution has been to partner with the largest electronics retailer in the country, Best Buy. Go to any Best Buy store and you’re likely to see an ESPN HD promotional clip playing on a bank of widescreens, teasing ESPN’s core male sports-loving demographic by showing what football can look like in the 21st century.
“A consumer walks into a retailer like Best Buy, sees the product and is captivated and decides to buy the unit and take it home,” Mr. Burns said. “Once they get their set home, they’ll want to feed it. They’ll call their provider and request ESPN HD-and that’s good for us.”
Another challenge has been wowing clients and business partners who might be reluctant to trek to the local retail electronics shop to see for themselves what this HD business is all about.
“How we get an HD screen in front of a client is a big challenge,” Mr. Burns said. “You can’t just go down to RadioShack and buy a splitter and run a cable down the hallway. The systems are hard to get around. But with HD you have a see-it-to-believe-it.”
Though Mr. Burns calls ESPN HD the most exciting project he’s ever been involved in, he originally wanted to work on the other side of the camera.
Mr. Burns grew up in Flat River, Mo., where at a young age he discovered two key things about himself: He loved sports, but he wasn’t good enough at playing sports to have a career as an athlete. Mr. Burns turned to sports business, instead, while earning a degree in communications from Central Missouri State University. Executive positions with the Kansas City Royals and Major League Baseball followed, and in 1992 Mr. Burns founded his own sports consulting company, Paragon Alliance. His biggest client was ESPN, which hired him full-time in 1996.
From the very beginning of his ESPN tenure, HD was on the network’s “to-do list.”
“And it kept making its way up the list as time went along,” Mr. Burns said. “I started saying four years ago we need to take a closer look, then an even closer look.”
ESPN HD was greenlit in 2002 and launched last March. Next year, the network will open a 120,000 square-foot HD studio in Bristol, Conn., the most advanced digital television studio in the country.
In the meantime, Mr. Burns has to make the best of the network’s three trucks that are capable of conducting HD remote telecasts, trucks that have to be juggled artfully around the country to maintain the network’s programming schedule.
A more problematic issue is the lack of advertising revenue available to a high-definition network. Advertisers do not yet film spots in HD. The network’s two primary sponsors are Best Buy and HD set-manufacturer Philips, which trade sponsorship for promotions on ESPN’s other, more accessible networks.
“The puzzle parts aren’t all in place yet,” Mr. Burns said. “It isn’t quite the right time to make money from a separate advertising stream in HD yet.”
But Mr. Burns said he wasn’t worried, not when one look at an HD screen makes the average sports fan’s jaw drop.
“Let me tell you a story,” he said. “Last March in Pittsburgh, when we got one of our new trucks, our head of production was addressing the troops-about 200 people-and turned to me and asked if I wanted to say anything. So I said, `What you’re doing here is no big deal. All we’re doing is creating the future of television.’ Everybody kind of laughed, but then we looked at each other and realized it was true.
“And if creating the future of television doesn’t get you jazzed, I don’t know what does.”