ESPN PPV Efforts Get Digital Toehold

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As digital boxes continue to roll out at a fast pace, ESPN is very optimistic that its digital pay-per-view sports services will help to drive digital subscriptions for operators.

After more than six months of offering its ESPN Now sports-barker service and ESPN Extra niche sports PPV service, the network is reaching about 2 million households through AT & T Broadband's Headend in the Sky digital package and In Demand.

While the network would not reveal specific buy-rate figures, director of sales, marketing and distribution development Skip Desjardin said early results are "encouraging," adding that the network is getting a solid mix of buys from a number of demographic groups.

"They've been encouraging, especially in a marketplace that's extremely crowded," he added.

Given the exclusive nature of the ESPN PPV services, Desjardin believes the industry hasn't fully taken advantage of its position against its direct-broadcast satellite competitors. While the services are "technologically neutral," neither EchoStar Communications Corp.'s Dish Network nor DirecTV Inc. has picked it up.

With sports representing such an important programming draw for the industry, particularly in its battle against DBS, Desjardin said, the ESPN digital channels can help operators' efforts to roll out digital boxes to the home.

"I think cable has missed an opportunity in the first six months, especially when exclusivity is a major topic of discussion," he said. "The industry hasn't taken advantage of a well-known brand such as ESPN on the PPV side."

While programming for the network's college-football, college-basketball and Major League Soccer packages is straightforward, Desjardin said, scheduling events for the ESPN Extra service hasn't been easy.

The network basically threw a number of different niche events and specials on the service to see what would interest consumers.

Shows such as X-Games highlight packages, rodeo, auto racing and other niche programs have primarily driven the network's early buys. But more obscure events-such as Spain's annual running of the bulls in Pamplona-are also popular.

Desjardin also said international soccer matches have proven to be major revenue generators. "There's a passionate and very enthusiastic following [for soccer]," he added.

After a few months, though, the network has enough early returns to almost program itself.

"In the end, we'll program what consumers buy and stop programming what they don't want to see," he said.

ESPN Now, which serves as a sports-barker channel, features live sports news from the GO Network and ESPN.com Internet sites. The site includes continually updated scheduling information and full-motion video promotional spots for sports programs offered by cable systems-another advantage operators can exploit against DBS.

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