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Back-of-Bull Gadget a Key to Keeping Rodeo Viewers

September 05, 2006|Shaun Schafer | The Associated Press

TULSA, Okla. — It's a familiar scene at any rodeo: A bull bucks and spins, eventually flinging a cowboy into the air and onto the dirt.

On television replays, it takes on a whole new dimension: Viewers see an animated bar chart that details the acceleration and deceleration of the animal. It ultimately stops on a number that represents the power of a particular bull.

The on-screen graphics are another step in the high-tech evolution of sports broadcasting as programmers look for new ways to attract and retain viewers.

The "X Power" graphics, which were included in some of ESPN's rodeo coverage, were fed by data provided by gadgets glued to the backs of the bulls. The data are instantly retrieved and incorporated into graphics on the TV screen as the ride gets replayed.

"It's kind of like jamming a master's thesis on physics into each ride," said Steve Wharton, director of new technology for Tulsa-based Winnercomm Inc., which created the technology and is the largest independent provider of programming for ESPN.

The puck-size gadget on the bull contains sensors that measure G-forces. It transmits the data in real time, allowing for quick presentation on the screen.

Winnercomm hopes to use a version of the device for its coverage of motorcycle stunts, providing viewers with an idea of the torque and G-forces riders feel.

The company plans to take all sorts of data and make it relevant to any fan, said Jim Wilburn, chief executive of Winnercomm. Whether it means using off-the-shelf items in a new way or spending millions to develop proprietary systems, the market demands innovation, he said.

"Once you know that Nolan Ryan throws a 98-mph fastball, you're not that interested in seeing how fast he throws every pitch," Wilburn said. "But you do want to know how well he is placing the ball and what he is doing to get strikes."

There are also revenue possibilities. Digital technology allows more information than ever to be pumped into a TV signal, giving broadcasters a chance to sell enhanced programming on TV as well as PCs, cellphones and hand-held computers.

Over the years, viewers have responded well to sports coverage enhancements, such as the superimposed first-down line in football.

On-screen graphics help define modern sports coverage, said technology analyst Josh Bernoff at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass.

"If you watch a classic baseball game from 1978, the pitchers, the pinch-hitters, the guys turning double plays are all pretty similar, but the difference is in the silly graphics. They aren't computer images but are graphical overlays," he said. "It's as telling as black and white that this is video from another era."

Winnercomm also has found a way to provide unusual camera angles in its sports coverage through its Skycam system, which features a camera that runs along a cable and shoots down at the action.

And it has changed the way fishing events are covered with its introduction of the real-time leader board, which instantly tells viewers how competitors spread over a lake are doing.

"There are no floating bleachers in fishing," said Dan Bowen, senior coordinating producer for outdoor programming at ESPN. "Often our events can fan out for hundreds of miles."

Broadcasters are looking for any advantage they can get.

"There is a huge amount of competition now for viewers," Bernoff said. "For any individual program, there are 120 other choices, and this means when Fox Sports faces up against ESPN or 'CSI' faces up against 'Law & Order,' you need any edge you can get to keep consumers' attention."

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