New ESPN Service Goes to Extremes


ESPN last week became the first network to officially dedicate a service to the burgeoning extreme-sports genre.

In what it terms the first hybrid broadband/subscription video-on-demand service, ESPN will launch EXPN, Action Sports On Demand this fall, officials from the programmer said.

In announcing the service, ESPN gets a jump on Fox Cable Networks Group, which is also entertaining the idea of launching an extreme-sports digital network.

The channel will feature programming from ESPN's emerging X Games franchise, as well as its action-sports library, ESPN executive vice president of affiliate sales and marketing Sean Bratches said at a network press briefing Wednesday. The channel will launch next February, in conjunction with the network's Winter X Games VII.

Operators can offer the service either as an Internet-based network tailored for broadband, or as a subscription-based VOD service. Bratches said EXPN could retail on SVOD for $3.95, although no price point has been established.

Operators and ESPN will evenly split revenues generated from the subscription service. ESPN expects to begin selling the service to operators at next month's National Show.

Viewers accessing the services will receive daily updated content with video highlights and long-form content on demand. Also included will be highlights from skate parks, and more in-depth coverage during the X Games and the Action Sports and Music Awards.

Bratches said most of the content will vary by distribution platform, but both outlets will offer a daily, 30-minute action sports-news show.

"We think there is a major market for this. The ESPN consumer is more likely to be the early adopters of technology," Bratches said. "EXPN Action Sports On Demand will not only sell and retain cable-modem and digital-cable customers, but allow affiliates to secure incremental revenue in the broadband universe."

ESPN isn't the only network interested in exploiting the extreme sports franchise. Sources close to Fox Cable Networks Group said the organization is considering launching a 24-hour network based on the genre.

Fox Sports Net last month announced a deal with the London-based Extreme Group to carry about five hours per week of extreme-sports programming.

Executives from Fox could not be reached for comment at press time.

Extreme Group's Extreme Sports Channel, which has 10.5 million subscribers in 48 countries and telecasts in seven languages, may also launch here in the United States by the fourth quarter, according to Extreme Group officials.

In other ESPN-related news, Bratches said the network is considering expanding its part-time ESPN Deportes Spanish-language service into a full-fledged, 24-hour network. The ESPN Deportes block, which runs for five hours on Sunday night, is currently in 13 million households.

At the press briefing, network executives were mum about whether ESPN would seek the 10 percent to 20 percent yearly rate increase typical under its long-term contracts this year. But ESPN president George Bodenheimer did say that the network's overall value — built through its many programming, marketing, interactive, subscription, VOD and ad-sales initiatives — is worth the asking price.

"We work as hard as anyone in the business to build our brand and support our operators," Bodenheimer said. "We believe we're worth every penny of what operators have agreed to pay us."