With games so pricey, reality works overtime

ESPN aims to ramp up original p'gramming

If Barry Bonds’ knee injury deprived viewers of watching the slugger for most of last season, the hated or beloved San Francisco Giants outfielder (depending on where your allegiances lie) will certainly make up for his lack of exposure this year.

Not only will Bonds’ every home run begin all highlight and recap shows starting this April — assuming he’s healthy and not suspended because of alleged steriod use — but, as if that isn’t enough, ESPN will add to the media circus as well.

As Bonds aims to surpass Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record, ESPN — with producers Brian Robbins and Mike Tollin — has ponied up $2 million for the weekly reality series “Bonds on Bonds,” to be aired on Tuesday nights.

Skein is just the latest in a series of initiatives from the Bristol, Conn.-based cabler to ramp up original programming, which currently constitutes 7% of the sked. Also airing right now is “Knight School,” a behind-the-scenes look at Texas Tech basketball coach Bobby Knight, who must choose one walk-on student to make the hoops team.

Cabler has been building its EOE (ESPN Original Entertainment) for several years. The strategy was started by programming topper Mark Shapiro, who left the network last year to work in the amusement park field with Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder. Exec VP John Skipper is now in charge.

ESPN has ramped up its original entertainment programming for several reasons:

  • It balances out the sked, especially in primetime where live-event coverage dominates.

  • Originals create an ever-expanding library, necessary to fill the appetites of 24/7 sports junkies.

  • The rights fees for the major sports are enormously expensive, and originals help offset those costs.

“The heart and soul of our network is live-event coverage, and that’s always been the case,” says Ron Semiao, EOE senior VP of programming. “What we’re doing is creating more original entertainment programming to broaden the fabric of our offerings. It’s an important part of what we do, especially with rights fees escalating.”

The network currently pays $296 million per year ($2.4 billion over an eight-year contract) to Major League Baseball, nearly double the last deal. For the NBA, cabler is paying $400 million per year ($2.4 billion over six years).

At least it gets to cover a few hundred games per season in those sports. For its new NFL deal, which goes into effect this season, ESPN is ponying up $1.1 billion a year over eight years — but will televise only a single game per week (plus some playoffs).

That one game, however, is “Monday Night Football,” which has been on ABC since its inception in 1970. ESPN will surround “MNF” with plenty of pre- and post-game studio coverage, and is hoping to bring back the event’s past glory.

“We’re just not looking at a three-hour game but a totally immersive venture,” says Semiao. “We want to restore ‘Monday Night Football’ into the big event it used to be.”

Says David Carter, principal of the Sports Business Group: “Clearly ESPN doesn’t need Monday Night Football, but you can say it belongs there. They are the sports network.”

Carter says ESPN is smart to bring reality into the programming mix. The net’s predominantly male demo is known for short attention spans and, with top-rated event shows such as the “World Series of Poker,” it keeps viewers tuned in even when there’s no game on.

“They seem to have their finger on the pulse of what young people are looking for,” he adds.

But certainly not everything’s a winner. Overall ratings have remained flat over the past year, and “ESPN Hollywood,” which aired on sister net ESPN2 and combined the entertainment and sports fields, arrived last year with lots of fanfare — and a healthy production budget — but failed to gain traction before being canceled.

Knowing ESPN can’t cover everything, other sports cablers are trying to build auds by developing their own niches.

NFL Network is upping its studio programs as well as adding, for the first time, regular season games; Fox’s regional cable sports networks are full-speed ahead with “Best Damn Sports Show Period”; and Tour de France champ Lance Armstrong has almost single-handedly put OLN on the map. Net has the exclusive rights to the international bike race.

Comcast-backed OLN uses the Tour as a way to get viewers to sample the net’s offerings, which also include downhill racing, the Boston Marathon, Davis Cup and Grand Prix races.

“We’re on this path to make OLN more mainstream but retain our character,” says network topper Gavin Harvey. “We see ourselves in five to 10 years carving out a unique niche with sports you can’t get everyplace else.”

OLN made a major step into the mainstream world when it acquired NHL rights this past season, a year after the league went on strike. While hockey has never generated strong viewership, the strategy behind the acquisition is twofold: Hardcore hockey fans will flock to a network they might have never been exposed to, and the move announces to the cable world that OLN’s ready to be a major player.

“There are opportunities now that we didn’t see before,” says Harvey. “The key for us is to stay unique. We may not be the biggest on the block or the quickest, but we think these type of sports deserve a place on a national platform.”

While OLN is ready to make its play, a quick ascension into the consciousness of sports fans isn’t likely.

Says Carter: “It will take them awhile to build their sports business, but ESPN started late at night with yacht racing and other little things. ESPN wasn’t ESPN then. If I’m ESPN, I wouldn’t look at OLN lightly.”