While America’s biggest sports net broadcasts to an incredible 74 million homes domestically, ESPN International fares even better. Reaching 156 million homes through 21 international networks in 20 languages, they cover the globe from Latin America, to Africa, to Asia.
Even with their internal production capabilities (including a 46,000 square foot facility in Singapore), ESPN has to turn to the independent production community to feed its voracious dial time. Granted, the backbone of any sports net is live programming (and the expensive rights required to get it), but as vice president of programming and development at ESPN International, Bernard Stewart, points out, ‘You don’t empty the stadium to fill it back up again.’ The air time between events is as important as the events themselves.
Contemporary sports programming requires a less-than-traditional approach. It’s no longer about desperately hanging on to audiences in a busy broadcasting landscape. ‘In this multi-channel universe,’ explains Stewart, ‘people are going to have many options, no matter where you are on the planet. I think almost everyone has received a wake-up call in this regard. I think everybody knows that you’re sharing the audience. The pie is only so large. You’re going to have viewers who are going to want to go other places. What you have to do is develop such a strong foundation that they’re going to want to come back. It’s the coming back that’s the important part.’
Support programming falls into two categories: news and information, and lifestyle programming. The first category is largely covered in-house by espn, but opportunities exist in the latter. According to Stewart, one-offs are a difficult sell, because they usually get lost among live events. Series are an easier sell because they create appointment viewing. ESPN will consider one-offs if they are ‘something special’, if they can be integrated into an existing series, or if a number of them can be tied together thematically or stylistically and be run as a series.
ESPN is also especially interested in working with regional producers on programming which can be run around regional events and leagues. Nothing is more interesting to sports fans than their local teams, and programming which exploits that devotion can mean a loyal viewership.
Non-event related programming is a tough sell. (How many fitness shows does one broadcaster need?) Sponsorship is a big plus in these cases. ESPN is especially attracted to what they term ‘client supplied’ programming – i.e. the sponsor pays for it. While sponsorship dollars are not necessarily required, they do make pitches more attractive.
‘It comes down to cost. That’s what most producers are faced with day in, day out. Everybody has great ideas. The question is: who has the strength and knowledge and the resources to help bring it to fruition?’
While ESPN is always looking for new programming, Stewart isn’t necessarily searching for the next hit or the next big trend. ‘Television is an amazing medium,’ he observes. ‘A lot of times what makes something a hit is just by virtue of the fact that it had quality and you put it on. I think [it has less to do with finding trends] as it does just somebody having taken a hard look at a quality product. It doesn’t take a lot of creativity.’
Stewart is a little cautious when questioned about the prospects of ESPN launching specialized sports channels, which seem to be the big trend in some territories. There are only so many proven formats, he explains, and it’s not easy to find the quality programming to support an audience and bring them back to the channel.
‘There’s always a finite amount of programming and creative ideas – I don’t care what anyone says. You have a lot of people out there who think: `I can make it’. There’s a lot of money that’s going to be spent, and there’s going to be a lot of people going to be working very hard at it. Some of those people are going to be very creative and are going to find a niche. Look at the ESPNs and the CNNs and the HBOs. I think those are the classic icons of the three genres which seem to always work: sports, news and movies.
CTV SPORTS NET LAUNCHES
The dawn of a new era has arrived in Canada, according to CTV, Canada’s only private national broadcaster. In October CTV will launch Sports Net, the country’s first 24-hour regional sports service. Sports Net will compliment CTV’s other specialty channels (CTV News 1, Outdoor Life Network and The Comedy Network). Ownership is spread between Rogers Broadcasting (40%), CTV (40%) and U.S. based-Fox Sports (20%). Along with a plethora of live programming, Sports Net will offer approximately 35% support programming.
Shows slated for the new channel include: Ice Time, a 30-minute figure skating show with host Debbi Wilkes (produced by Sports Net); Hard Core Football hosted by Ronnie Lott; and The Last Word with Jim Rome (both produced by Fox Sports, Sports Net’s major partner).
A sports game show, fitness shows and kids and entertainment programming are up-and-coming ventures, as is a summer slot for documentaries, according to Laura Mellanby, senior director of programming for CTV Sports Group. ‘We are looking to possibly acquire some docs but it’s an expensive venture,’ she says.
With veteran Canadian sportscaster TSN as Sport’s Net’s major competitor, all eyes will be on the new channel to see if they make headway in an already established market.
THE EXTREME SPORTS CHANNEL GEARS UP
The first quarter of 1999 is promising to bring new adventures for Essex-based X-Dream International, a 3-year old sports programming company. They are set to launch The Extreme Sports Channel in partnership with United Pan-European Communications (UPC). Described by the company as, ‘a cross between Eurosport and MTV, focusing on extreme and adventure sports whilst incorporating programming and live events,’ the 24-hour three pronged cable, satellite and digital channel will be broadcast into 17 European territories. But, according to X-Dream managing director, Alistair Gosling, they won’t stop there. ‘With every piece of programming we’re putting in, we’re looking for non-exclusive cable and satellite rights. Our plan is to work with the key producers… so that the rights are going to be clearable into every territory worldwide.’
According to Gosling, they are still actively looking for extreme-related programming: ‘We’re looking for anything from rollerblading and windsurfing… to more adult programming like exploration and arctic adventure.’
Current X-Dream production projects include the climbing show Peak to Peak (26 x 30-minutes), and the teen Australian sports series Not Recommended Behaviour (26 x 30-minutes).