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ESPN Launching Interactive ‘First Take’ Show on Facebook (EXCLUSIVE)

Sports net's bigger focus on social media also will include live Twitter shows ahead of Super Bowl LII

Here’s your chance to mix it up with Stephen A. Smith head-to-head.

ESPN next week is launching a viewer-participation version of “First Take” produced exclusively for Facebook’s Watch, in its latest move to up output of original programming on social platforms.

“First Take: Your Take” on Facebook will feature the TV talk show’s trio — Stephen A. Smith, Max Kellerman, and Molly Qerim — inviting fans to weigh in on a weekly topic by sharing their own video takes. Producers will pick the best reactions, and out of those one fan will be chosen to sit in the hot seat and debate Smith or Kellerman in each week’s final episode.

Facebook is paying ESPN to exclusively license the show for six months. “First Take: Your Take” will stream three times weekly (Mondays, Wednesdays and Friday), scheduled for 3 p.m. ET each day on the show’s Facebook Watch page at facebook.com/FirstTakeYT.

Smith told Variety that he looks at the new Facebook show as another way for “First Take” to build audience. “When the audience is telling you there are a variety of ways to reach them, you have to respond to that,” he said. “I don’t think we can take our foot off the pedal.”

Smith, who has more than 800,000 followers on Facebook, added: “I’m not one who ever hides from the public.”

The Facebook Watch show will launch Monday, Jan. 29, ahead of Super Bowl LII, so the initial topic of discussion for “First Take: Your Take” will almost certainly focus on the coming matchup between the Patriots and the Eagles.

“We wanted this to be highly interactive, that really was the goal,” said Ryan Spoon, ESPN’s SVP of social and digital content. “It’s one thing to have great reach, but that’s more powerful when that reach comes with engagement and interaction.”

Separately on the social front for this year’s Super Bowl, ESPN is presenting a special three-day live-streaming show on Twitter, featuring ESPN’s Katie Nolan and Mike Golic Jr. The “Double Coverage” special will stream on Twitter next Wednesday, Thursday and Friday starting at 4 p.m. ET — live from Minneapolis.

The new Facebook and Twitter projects come after ESPN debuted a short-form, single-host version of “SportsCenter” on Snapchat in November. Spoon said the twice-daily weekday show is going gangbusters: In the last 30 days, “SportsCenter on Snapchat” has pulled in 16.9 million unique users, averaging more than 2 million per day.

“They’re engaged users, at real scale,” Spoon said. Just as important for ESPN is connecting with a younger demo: While 40% of the audience for “SportCenter” on TV is under 35, 82% of “SportsCenter on Snapchat” viewers are under 35.

Elle Duncan, a “SportsCenter” anchor who hosts the Snapchat show on Wednesday and Thursday mornings, said the original idea for Snapchat was to do very short, bursty takes on sports news and buzz. But as the show has evolved and each host has been finding his or her tone, Duncan said the team has found that having fewer, longer stories works better.

“We thought we’d do 25 stories, 10 seconds apiece [in each episode],” she said. “But the kids are sticking around longer if we go a little more in-depth… We’re not overthinking it. We’re looking at the data, and trusting ourselves.”

ESPN’s new social-programming push comes after a reorg of the content division’s structure last fall. With that, it added the new group focused solely on social and off-platform content headed by Spoon, who had previously led digital product development at ESPN for several years.

“With every platform we’re looking at, we ask, What can we do that’s uniquely ESPN? And what’s unique to each platform?” Spoon said.

“First Take: Your Take” is being produced in conjunction with the team for the TV show. There are three parts to the Facebook version. The Monday episode will be a traditional studio-style segment with the “First Take” crew, who will ask fans to share their views and opinions on a topic and upload the video to Facebook. On Wednesdays, the show will be an edited segment of video from the “First Take” team that includes segments of the videos uploaded by viewers. At the end of the show, the fans whose videos were included will be told to check Facebook Messenger, through which one of them will be contacted and asked to square off for the Friday episode in a debate with one of the “First Take” hosts.

Episodes of “First Take: Your Take” are expected to be in the 7-10 minute range. But, Spoon said, “We are learning. It’s a first for us, so we’ll test and learn and figure it out.”

All the ancillary content ESPN is producing for social platforms — with more to come — is beneficial to the programmer’s brand across its TV and owned digital properties, Spoon said. The content his group is producing for Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and elsewhere ultimately should expand the ESPN’s exposure and drive TV tune-in.

On Twitter, for example, ESPN live-streamed a show on Jan. 8 with Jason Fitz and Mike Golic Jr. from the College Football Playoff national championship game — which drew 2 million viewers before the Alabama-Georgia showdown. “That show culminated in the kickoff of the game, and that is a good thing” for ESPN’s TV business, Spoon said.

Next week’s Super Bowl show on Twitter with Nolan and Golic Jr. will stream on the @ESPN account and at live.twitter.com/espn. The two hosts of “Double Coverage” will provide analysis, interview guests and stir in viral content. As with other Twitter live programming, the show will be accompanied with a timeline featuring related real-time tweets from fans and experts.

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