ESPN is floating ideas for a batch of digital networks tocable operators, several MSO officials said last week.

The sports-programming giant, which imposed rate increasesthis year that have had operators up in arms, is looking for feedback on a number ofconcepts that it is weighing in terms of digital, sources said.

Some of the ideas for digital services that ESPN is runningby cable operators include hunting and fishing; auto racing; a Spanish-language networkthat might air sports such as soccer; ESPNX, which would have the kind of extreme sportsthat air on ESPN2; and a country-club channel.

Several of the proposed networks would likely competeagainst existing analog services, including The Outdoor Channel, Speedvision and OutdoorLife Network.

It's unclear — and ESPN hasn't told cable operators— how many digital networks it is seriously considering launching, as it has beentight-lipped about its plans. "The industry is looking for branded product to enhancethe value of digital tiers," said Sean Bratches, ESPN's vice president of affiliaterelations. "ESPN is always looking at new opportunities, and our affiliates are amongthe first whom we talk to about such matters. We want to ensure that whatever weultimately do contributes value to program offerings."

Most of the major programmers have already launched digitalnetworks or have plans for them in the works. But ESPN has been conspicuous in its silence— and its lack of announcements — about any networks designed specifically fordigital carriage, although some of its services, such as ESPNews and ESPN Classic, arebeing carried on digital tiers.

In contrast, some of the cable networks totally orpartially owned by ESPN's parent, The Walt Disney Co., debuted on digital tiers this year.Disney Channel rolled out Toon Disney this spring, and Lifetime Television launchedLifetime Movie Network.

Andy Dale, president of The Outdoor Channel, which focusesheavily on hunting and fishing, said he welcomed any would-be competition from an ESPNdigital network.

The difference with his network's depiction of hunting,according to Dale, is that it won't be "sanitized" the way that a Disney channellike ESPN would do it.

"It's the Bambi factor," Dale said. "That'sour edge. We're not P.C. [politically correct]. We don't kowtow to animal-rightsgroups."

At least one top 10 MSO programming executive said anyattempt by ESPN to offer digital services would be met with heavy resistance fromoperators.

"Even if it's a strong product, it would be a hardsell because they've angered so many people," the executive said. "Plus, we'restill finding that people are buying digital for the movies."

ESPN has come under fire from operators after instituting a20 percent rate increase to help pay for its $600 million National Football Leaguecontract. The hike pushed ESPN's license fee past the $1-per-subscriber mark.

"Hopefully, it (ESPN's digital tier) wouldm't cost asmuch as football," said Bernard Gallagher, president, Century Communications Corp.

ESPN's moves would once again pit the company againstFox/Liberty Networks. The latter is an equity partner — along with Cox CommunicationsInc. and MediaOne — in Outdoor Life and Speedvision. Fox/Liberty also ownsSpanish-language service Fox Sports Américas.

It's also uncertain how committed Cox and MediaOne would beto launching a suite of services in competition with Speedvision and Outdoor Life.