ESPN has given itself two birthday presents as it celebrates its silver anniversary.
The sports giant, which celebrates 25 years on the air Tuesday, announced that it would add a college-sports network and a replica of ESPN in HD to its portfolio of properties next year.
Tapping into the company's vast array of NCAA rights, ESPNU will bow in March with a lineup heavy on live events. ESPN officials said ESPNU would present primarily Division I football, as well as men's and women's basketball, during its rookie campaign.
The ESPNU announcement ended months of speculation that ESPN would leverage its college rights and launch a dedicated service. It also comes as ESPN is the subject of a Department of Justice inquiry about its control of those rights and its warehousing of games.
Moreover, competitorsCollege Sports Television and FSN have stepped up their games in the space. CSTV recently acquired rights to the Mountain West Conference, previously held by ESPN, and it will begin airing action from that circuit in 2006. FSN converted three out-of-market regional networks to college services this past weekend.
For its part, ESPN2 HD will launch as a simulcast of ESPN2, including more than 100 live telecasts in its first year of operation-- college football, men’s and women’s college basketball, the Little League World Series, Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League -- all of which will be originally produced and distributed in high-definition.
Together, ESPN HD and ESPN2 HD will immediately offer viewers more than 6,000 hours of originally produced high-definition programming and more than 2,000 original programs, according to network officials.
Bryan Burns, ESPN's HD chief, said ESPN has contracts with all major cable operators except Time Warner Cable, and with direct-broadcast satellite providers DirecTV Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp.
ESPN HD is currently available to some 50 million homes and, as of last spring, ESPN HD was in more than 1 million homes, according to Burns.
"We're now going to go out with ESPN2 HD and see where we get," he said, noting that the fee is part of the company's overall programming bundle.
"We're really ramping up. Not only do we walk the walk, but we're far ahead of the curve,” he added. “ESPN2 HD is a great value for our distributor partners and fans."
Burns said ESPN2 HD would begin much like ESPN HD did, with live events. It will add some studio programming -- National Football League programming will begin this weekend in HD.
He added that ESPN Original Entertainment productions -- like Playmakers, upcoming poker series Tilt and the movies like Hustle (the Pete Rose biography) -- will all be in HD and air on the “Deuce.”
"Long term, our goal is to shoot everything in HD, but it will take time,” Burns said. “We have the World's Strongest Man competitions that were shot years ago in South Africa. We can't go back in and redo those in the format. Over time, most everything on our air will be in HD, but it will take some time."
In addition to football and hoops, ESPN officials said ESPNU would feature baseball, softball, volleyball, lacrosse, hockey, wrestling and spring football, plus select high-school-football telecasts.
Many events will air exclusively on the network, while other ESPNU telecasts will coexist with events syndicated on other outlets regionally through ESPN Regional Television arrangements.
In fact, ERT will handle the primary production responsibilities for ESPNU out of its Charlotte, N.C., headquarters. ERT is the nation’s largest syndicator of college-sports programming, with more than 740 events produced each year, accounting for more than 2,000 live and/or original hours.
ESPN plans to promote and integrate ESPNU with its other holdings: bowing an ESPNU site within ESPN.com (espn.go.com); making programming and content available to the ESPN Broadband, ESPN Mobile and ESPN Interactive TV platforms; and including inserts within ESPN-The Magazine.
Senior vice president of programming John Wildhack said ESPNU would offer comprehensive studio programming, cut-ins and other news reports from game sites, as well as replays of high-profile college games that originally aired on ABC Sports, ESPN and ESPN2.
Wildhack said ESPNU will give "college-sports fans more of what they want. There is not a better opportunity for ESPN than this network, considering the roots of our company that go back to college basketball and football and our relationship with the NCAA."
Wildhack pointed out that ESPN is in the midst of an 11-year agreement (through 2012-13) to televise numerous NCAA championships, including Olympic Games sports events in each of the three collegiate seasons.
He noted that ESPN has worked with the NCAA to "identify growth properties" like the women's basketball and softball championships and the men's College World Series
Wildhack said ESPN had been working on this service in one shape or form for more than 12 months, and it was "absolutely not" motivated by the DOJ inquiry. He declined further comment on the matter.
He deferred questions about rate cards to other network officials who weren't immediately available for comment. He did say, "We think the lineup we're putting together over the first 12 months should be attractive to distributors."
All high-definition programming on ESPN HD and ESPN2 HD will be delivered to cable systems and satellite providers in the 720p (progressive) format.
“ESPN HD is driving our affiliates’ high-definition business, and the addition of ESPN2 HD makes the consumer proposition that much more compelling,” said Sean Bratches, president of Disney and ESPN Networks affiliate sales and marketing, in a prepared statement.
"Our affiliates, our advertisers and, most important, our viewers are requesting more HD content, and as we’ve seen the demand skyrocket, we’re committing to fulfilling that need,” Bratches added.