ESPNU seeks move to head of college TV class

ESPN is not usually late to any major development in the cable industry. It was, of course, the first national cable outfit to devote itself solely to sports, the first TV entity to hold simultaneously carriage deals with the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball, and a pioneer of many technical enhancements during live games that now are taken for granted.

But with ESPNU, its new entry concentrating on college sports, the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports is showing up a full two years behind CSTV Networks and Fox College Sports.

And beyond the apparent tardiness, ESPN is not mimicking its competitors with a nine-figure investment to get off the ground and a shopping spree of new programming deals. The network will assume only minimal costs to get on the air through use of its resources at the existing ESPN Regional Networks headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., and a host of standing relationships with major conferences like the Big Ten, Big 12 and Big East.

The late timing and lack of upfront bankrolling, however, is not a sign of disinterest. ESPN is aiming to establish quick and powerful position for ESPNU, and do so in much the same way it has systematically and successfully diversified into wireless, print, international and Internet businesses.

“College sports is woven into the fabric of ESPN and is one of the most significant categories of what we do, whether it’s number of hours or rating points,” said Burke Magnus, ESPNU general manager. “For me, I can’t get enough, and I think a lot of people in this country share that sentiment.”

The venture also extends a growing trend toward highly specialized cable outlets, joining the NFL Network, NBA TV, Speed Channel, Golf Channel and a host of others.

So what’s going to be on ESPNU? The channel plans about 300 live events a year, zig-zagging among events like NCAA ice hockey and wrestling championships, volleyball, football from historically black colleges, baseball, softball, lacrosse and a large helping of both men’s and women’s basketball.

Serving as the face of ESPNU will be lead anchor Mike Hall, winner of ESPN’s first “Dream Job” competition. No debate or nightly news shows beyond pregame and postgame coverage are currently planned for ESPNU. But given ESPN’s near-constant tinkering with “Cold Pizza” and other recent programming additions, one should expect refinements in the months ahead.

The summer predictably will be much more starved for programming, with the absence of live competition. A steady diet of repeats, often themed in blocks devoted to a particular school, conference or rivalry, is planned. But even with those plans, ESPNU felt the need to euphemistically describe its re-airs into “timeshifts.”

And despite being originally designed as a truly incremental venture, ESPNU also plans to show many prominent games first seen on sister networks ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC.

For now, audiences for ESPNU will be small. The network currently has carriage deals with Adelphia Communications and DirecTV, the latter providing access to the satellite carrier’s sports tier, putting it in a total of about 3million homes. ESPNU would prefer to gain placement on broader digital basic platforms, following the hard-line but ultimately successful strategy used by the NFL Network. The other major cable outfits, however, have not tripped over themselves to sign a deal.

As for CSTV Networks, a sense of dismissiveness exists toward ESPNU, even as it monitors the network start carefully and competes without the massive cross-promotional platform of the ESPN colossus. Last fall CSTV Networks sniffed at the initial announcement of the creation of ESPNU, calling ESPN “the new worldwide follower in sports.”

Since then CSTV Networks has made significant moves into developing original programming and providing content over wireless, satellite radio and broadband Internet platforms, including the acquisition of exclusive rights to provide live streaming video of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. But CSTV Networks is estimated to be in about 7million homes, far below initial projections.

“We think what they’ve announced is a great endorsement of the success CSTV has had in the marketplace,” said Brian Bedol, CSTV Networks president. “We’re flattered that they’ve chosen to join us in this space and extremely confident in our business. This is sort of typical of how big media companies often respond.”

Bedol had particularly pointed remarks for all the “timeshifting” planned by ESPNU.

“I love my TiVo, so I’m not sure I really need a whole new network to do that for me,” he said.

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