Changes Ahead for ESPN


More potential affiliates for its revamped broadband offering, an emphasis on documentaries over scripted fare development and eventually a West Coast version of SportsCenter.

Those were among the news tidbits dispensed by high-ranking ESPN executives last week during the company’s Media Workshop at corporate headquarters here.

ESPN president George Bodenheimer last Thursday expressed confidence that the sports giant would soon ink a distribution deal or two for its ESPN360 product, which currently counts 17 million customers through affiliates Verizon Communications, AT&T, Charter Communications and, as of last week, RCN in select markets, owing to the availability of more streamed games.


“It’s about the games. The live games have increased the attention level,” Bodenheimer said, without naming the potential new affiliates or a time frame striking the deals.

Added executive vice president of content John Skipper: “When you have content people want to see, [distributors] will make it available.”

Skipper said ESPN360’s new calling card has or will include a host of live college football and basketball games, plus such other content such as cricket, Venezuelan baseball and Australian rules football.

The service is also home to NASCAR stock-car races and will feature National Basketball Association games this season, as well as Grand Slam tennis action.

As for an eye toward more documentaries, ESPN has a couple of entries lined up for next year. Slated to debut in March 2008, Black Magic, from Dan Klores (Ring of Fire), is a look at African-American athletes in the South during the 1950s and 1960s against the backdrop of the civil-rights movement.

Additionally, ESPN, under its newly named ESPN Content Development group and in conjunction with Throwback Pictures, has commenced production on a two-hour picture about former Major League Baseball manager and player Bobby Valentine and his current gig: managing Japan’s Chiba Lotte Marines squad.

Executive vice president and executive editor John Walsh said there were a number of documentaries in development, but none that were far enough along to announce.

“There are a lot of great sports stories to tell from different angles,” Skipper said.

He noted that scripted fare, which was a big driver for former executive Mark Shapiro under the ESPN Original Entertainment moniker, for the most part was being placed on the backburner. Instead of looking to broaden its offerings, ESPN has renewed its concentration on games, events and news/information fare.

To that end, ESPN announced that it will debut its primetime newsmagazine show E:60 on Oct. 16 at 7 p.m. (ET)

“It’s not a big business, not an imperative,” Skipper said of entertainment-oriented and scripted fare. He did say there is development interest in a comedy along the lines of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which the actors work off an outline from creator Larry David.

ESPN Original Entertainment was folded into the company’s new content development group, led by Keith Clinkscales, while Ron Semiao, senior vice president of EOE, continues to lead the charge for projects.

ESPN, which last week concluded the premiere run of the eight-part series The Bronx is Burning, previously ran pro football show Playmakers, and poker-themed series Tilt.


Looking ahead to 2009, ESPN will migrate one of its SportsCenter editions from here to a new production facility in Los Angeles.

Mark Gross, senior vice president and managing editor of studio production, said the game plan calls for ESPN to shoot the 1 a.m. edition of its flagship show in LA by mid-2009.

ESPN officials said the venue will give the company access to more West Coast talent and athletes, and widen its scope beyond what some see as a northeastern-bias.

Two production studios will sit atop an ESPN Zone restaurant in L.A. Live, the entertainment-district project near the Staples Center.

ESPN also plans to host its ESPY Awards in the Nokia Theatre in the area.