ESPN Touts Time-Shifted VOD Games

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ESPN hopes to give cable's video-on-demand business a boost by affording viewers the opportunity to watch same-day or next-day repeats of live pro and college sports events.

Armed with time-shifting rights for football and basketball games from nearly 20 National Collegiate Athletic Association conferences — as well as its recently acquired National Basketball Association package — ESPN wants to create an attractive new offering for operators looking to generate revenue from digital VOD technologies.

The newly created ESPNVOD division will offer more than 120 hours of ESPN library and game footage to operators through various distribution vehicles, including VOD content aggregation companies In Demand LLC and Intertainer Inc., ESPN vice president of alternative technologies Matt Murphy said.

Those offerings would include time-shifted college basketball games from such organizations as the Big 12, Atlantic 10, Big Ten, Mountain West, Southeastern Conference and Western Athletic Conference, Murphy said. ESPN also holds similar rights to college football games from the Atlantic Coast, Big East, Big Ten, Mountain West and Southeastern conferences.

The network also picked up time-shifting rights to NBA games as part of parent The Walt Disney Corp.'s $2.4 billion TV deal with the league. Though the network would not offer a schedule for repeated games, or provide a suggested single-game retail price, network executives believe subscribers — particularly sports fans — will still embrace the opportunity.

"There are people that for some reason or another can't catch a game they wanted to see," Matt Murphy said. "Through time-shifting, we'll provide an opportunity for those fans to watch the game at a time that's convenient to them."

Several tests of the time-shifting option have shown that viewers will pay for such delayed programming, said Murphy, although he would not release specific figures. Buys for such events were virtually identical at price points of $2.95 and $4.95, he said.

"The tests have shown that the time-shifting concept is appealing to viewers," he said.

But industry observers aren't sure that a significant number of viewers will pony up $2 to $5 to watch a repeat of a live game.

"Given the vast amount of sports news available both on cable and the Internet, a sports fan will have read the game recap on ESPN.com, seen the highlights on NBA.com TV and read the local paper's story on the game before it's available to buy on a VOD basis," said one sports network executive. "Unless [Michael] Jordan scored 60 points or there was a brawl, it's a tough sell."

Regional sports networks, which repeat both college and professional games, have said ratings for the repeat telecasts drop off significantly from the live telecasts. For example, Madison Square Garden Network's late-night replays of that evening's New York Knicks game barely average a 0.1 rating, well below the network's average 1.7 for live games, said network sources.

But Pilson Communications principal Neal Pilson said the option has merit, particularly for hard-core sports fans who are unable to watch a live telecast of their favorite team.

"If you offer it at an affordable price, it could be an attractive option to viewers," Pilson said. "No one has complained about having too many options or choices."

Murphy said the network will seek to obtain time-shifting rights from its other three major professional leagues — Major League Baseball, the National Football League and the National Hockey League.

"We believe that VOD is real, so we're going explore those rights with our partners," he said.

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