ESPN Classic plays with originals

'Cheap Seats' puts new perspective on old events

The twin standup comics Randy and Jason Sklar are cracking each other up as they riff on the assembled group of bloated male weightlifters being introduced on an old video of the 1971 world weightlifting championships from Columbus.

“These guys could be lining up for a casting call on ‘The Sopranos,’ ” says Randy, who, like his brother, is cutting up as co-host of “Cheap Seats,” a new weekly series on ESPN Classic. Randy and Jason are casually dressed and seated on a brown leather couch in front of a big-screen TV on a set made up to resemble a tape-library storeroom lined with shelves of videocassettes.

It’s ESPN Classic’s first original comedy show, and the boys are having a ball, hoping to remind people of one of cable’s cult favorites of the ’90s, “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” which amassed 197 episodes during successful runs on Comedy Central and Sci Fi Channel.

ESPN Classic describes “Cheap Seats” as “a new look at old games,” and that description could just as well refer to the self-administered makeover that the network has undertaken.

Having ESPN as a parent — the most lucrative and powerful basic-cable network in America — is like partnering with Tony Soprano to collect a debt: ESPN Classic has soared from a lowly 8 million subscribers when ESPN bought it in October 1997 to 53.7 million as of last month.

But, while cable operators and satellite distributors have rushed to embrace the network, TV viewers proved to be far less enthusiastic. Watching 2½ hours of even an exciting game that could be decades old “makes for static programming, which is unlikely to energize lots of cable viewers,” says Terry Denson, head of programming for Insight Communications, a top-10 cable operator.

It doesn’t help that the National Football League, the highest-rated of all the professional-sports leagues by far, prohibits ESPN Classic from carriage of its golden oldies, restricting the network to highlight-type shows like a half-hour recap of the Minnesota Vikings’ 1969 season, produced by NFL Films.

As a result, ESPN Classic suffers the embarrassment of getting beaten consistently in the ratings by at least eight basic-cable networks that fall short of Classic in subscriber numbers, by anywhere from a million to 6 million: Discovery Health, Oxygen, National Geographic, Toon Disney, Lifetime Movie Network, Noggin, Soap Net and Fuse.

But that’s where the Sklar brothers and “Cheap Seats” come in. “We’re in the process of reinventing ESPN Classic,” says Sean Bratches, executive VP of affiliate sales and marketing for the network.

Crowley Sullivan, director of programming and acquisitions for ESPN Classic, says that, in addition to “Cheap Seats,” the network has beefed up “Reel Classics,” its Sunday-night theatrical-movie franchise, by hiring Burt Reynolds as host.

And instead of letting old games play out in their entirety, Sullivan says the network has wielded the scissors, condensing many of the games into a more easily digestible one-hour format, under the title “Classic Drive Thru.”

Reruns of the ESPN documentary series “SportsCentury” have also turned up more frequently on the network’s schedule.

These changes have begun moving the needle to the north on viewer tune-in. Artie Bulgrin, senior VP of research and sales development for ESPN, says that during the first three months of 2004, Classic’s total-day ratings are up by 45% in total viewers from the same period a year ago. Similarly, Classic has climbed by 30% in total viewers in primetime for the same first quarter.

The biggest gainer among individual series is “Reel Classics,” which has shot up by 43% in total viewers for the year to date compared with the same period in 2003; among men 25 to 54, the increase is an even gaudier 58%. Thesp Reynolds can take some credit for these boosts — he signed on as host last fall.

More people may be tuning in to ESPN Classic, but the network still averages only about 48,000 total viewers in primetime, and about 28,000 in total day.

“It’s still a lightly watched network,” says Insight’s Denson, who’s one of the cable operators disgruntled about funneling a projected total of $79.3 million to ESPN Classic this year, according to Kagan World Media, 13% more than in 2003.

But Sullivan says ESPN Classic can take a hint. “Rest assured,” he says. “We’re planning a lot more shows like ‘Cheap Seats’ and ‘Reel Classics’.”