Skipper: ESPN On Path to Dish Renewal

Programmer Has Held Preliminary License Fee Talks with Internet Providers
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Bristol, Conn. --The Walt Disney Co.’s carriage contract with Dish Network expires at the end of September, but John Skipper is optimistic the programmer will reach a renewal with the No. 2 DBS provider.

Skipper, president of ESPN, Inc. and co-chairman of Disney Media Networks, said “you’re never confident until midnight,” but the parties have been engaged in “very constructive discussions and it’s clear we’re on a path to get a deal done.”

Skipper, speaking at lunch with reporters at ESPN Media Day at the company’s headquarters here Wednesday, added that ESPN has not had a public issue with a distributor for a long time, and it’s “our preference to keep it that way.”

Skipper mentioned that ESPN, which he characterized as being “pretty ecumenical” in offering its video content to various distribution platforms over the years, said the company had held some preliminary discussions with undisclosed Internet providers. He said ESPN is happy to have those talks with new providers with the concept of their paying similar or greater rates than current affiliates for its “suite of services, not one-offs.”

ESPN senior vice president of corporate communications Chris LaPlaca said that talks with alternative TV providers are "exploratory and any new platform would have to offer a package of channels comparable to what other operators provide."

Relative to reports that Google is taking a run at Sunday Ticket, the NFL’s out-of-market package the rights to which are exclusively held by DirecTV through the 2014 season, Skipper favors the incumbent. Acknowledging that leagues look to increase the value of rights via more competitors, he said: “I’ve always been pretty skeptical that rights-holders of [signature] events will put those rights on digital platforms… My guess is that Sunday Ticket will wind up not with Google, but DirecTV.”

As to rights' pricing overall, Skipper said that over the past half-century there have only been a handful of times where costs didn’t climb and ESPN budgets with that in mind. Nevertheless, not all properties are valued equally. “There are plenty of live sports rights, but the ones that make a difference are scarce,” he said.

Elsewhere on ESPN Media Day, a number of news nuggets surfaced on the Bristol campus:

*With the kickoff of the SEC Network less than a year out, ESPN announced that the service’s first football game will pit Texas A&M against South Carolina on Aug. 28, 2014.

Burke Magnus, ESPN's senior vice president of college sports programming, said the SEC and the Big Ten are the two most “national” of the college conferences. Although the SEC service has lined up AT&T U-verse as a charter affiliate. Magnus had nothing new to report on the distribution front. He expressed optimism that the service will gain traction, yet conceded that many carriage deals will go “down to the wire.”  

*ESPN is adding former pro football stars Jerome Bettis and Mark Brunell to its NFL Live and SportsCenter analyst teams, while current Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark will contribute and appear in-studio when the club is not playing, according to ESPN NFL studio shows senior coordinating producer Seth Markman.

*Markman also noted that Matthew Berry will assume a more prominent role on Sunday NFL Countdown telecasts, with the fantasy football guru coming on at 11:45 a.m. after the inactive players are announced and dispensing lineup acumen accordingly.

*Funnyman Kenny Mayne, the former SportsCenter anchor, will return to the desk, filling in at the flagship show’s Los Angeles edition. Although schedule specifics were not discussed, senior vice president and executive producer of production Mark Gross said the role would be substantial, with Mayne filling in when Stan Verrett and/or Neil Everett are on other assignments or vacation.

*In keeping with company’s response to the announcement of Fox Sports 1, executives and talent repeatedly riffed on the theme that competition will only make ESPN better. They also said that FS1's Aug. 17 debut has energized their games.