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Disney Makes Big Play to Stay in NFL’s TV-Football Game

Robin Roberts is moving this week from mornings on ABC to primetime. And while the shift is temporary, the business machinations behind it are likely to continue.

Roberts, best known for her regular appearances on “Good Morning America,” will serve this Thursday as an important presence on one night of ABC’s multi-evening coverage of the NFL Draft, an annual highlight for pigskin fans that will also be broadcast on ABC’s sister, ESPN. Both networks are part of the Walt Disney Company, which looks to be making its best play for NFL football as discussions about broadcast rights for the sport are nearing a new round.

“It’s going to be different,” says Roberts in an interview while preparing for the event near ESPN’s Connecticut headquarters. ABC will deliver her coverage on a night its viewers expect soapy fare like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Station 19,” but the host vows audiences will not be disappointed. “We are really going to give you storytelling,” she says, about dozens of “young men and their families” and their first steps into big-league sports. “You are still going to get the draft picks. That’s still the focus,” she says, but ABC’s coverage will tilt more toward entertainment, with country singer Luke Bryan and radio personality Bobby Bones on hand. ESPN’s coverage will lean toward sports die-hards, with more attention being paid to what Connor Schell, ESPN’s executive vice president of content, calls “X’s and O’s coverage.”

“This is an event that has continued to grow,” says Schell, in an interview at ESPN’s New York offices. “We can figure out how to crate two complimentary broadcasts here that showcase the same event in slightly different ways.”

Throwing both ABC and ESPN at the Draft isn’t just a bid by parent company Walt Disney to bring more viewers to an off-season football mainstay. The two-network maneuver (Disney also intends to stream some elements and broadcast in Spanish) represents the clearest signal yet of the entertainment giant’s desires to to stay in the good graces of the National Football League.

It’s no secret in the media business that rights for NFL football are slated to come up for renewal in the not-too-distant future, with the contract for ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” set to lapse in 2021. Other network contracts will quickly follow. As Disney has simulcast the Pro Bowl over both ESPN and ABC in recent seasons, there has been growing speculation the company would like to do something bigger with its main football property, which has been shown on ABC or ESPN since 1970. Could that entail a shift of “MNF” back to ABC or a bid for additional game rights?

“I won’t sit here and tell you that we don’t have a ton of interest in being a partner with the NFL in  any way, shape or form that manifests itself in the future,” says Burke Magnus, the ESPN executive vice president who oversees relations between the network and various sports leagues. “Nobody has a crystal ball, so nobody knows how they are going to bring their rights to market, but however they choose, we are going to be interested.”

A year ago, the relationship appeared strained. ESPN was giving new emphasis to the NBA, after signing a nine-year deal in 2014 to extend its rights to professional basketball for another decade. Ratings for “Monday Night Football” had sagged over several seasons, even though the broadcast maintains its status as one of cable’s most-watched programs (and most expensive for advertisers). ESPN and its viewers weren’t getting the best possible games, but the NFL was watching the steady erosion of a cherished game-day property.

The situation hit a new low after the NFL gave rights to broadcast the Draft to Fox last year, alongside ESPN. That move rippled across the company, which over four decades of coverage has turned the event into something more spectacular. “We feel very proprietary about it,” says Trey Wingo, one of ESPN’s best-known football hosts. Suddenly, the network’s hold on a tradition it helped create seemed tenuous. “I’m not going to lie to you,” says Seth Markman, ESPN’s vice president of production. “That was something that stuck with us. We were like, ‘We need to find a way to come up with an idea that gets this back in our family.’”

The mood has changed. Under Jimmy Pitaro, named ESPN’s new president in March of last year, executives have worked to “reset” relations with the NFL. In quick order, “MNF” had a new on-air team (which will likely evolve this fall); football started getting new attention on ESPN’s “Get Up” morning program. And prominent personalities who expressed reservations about the sport were moved elsewhere in the empire, as Michelle Beadle was after noting on “Get Up” that her interest in football was on the wane. Viewership for “Monday Night Football” rose 8% in the 2018 season to more than 11.6 million, compared with nearly 10.8 million in the year-earlier period.

Disney will be under pressure to get wider attention for the NFL in a market when competitors can make similar claims. “Fox, NBC and CBS can all suggest the same thing to the NFL, that we can provide additional reach for you,” says Tag Garson, senior vice president of properties at Wasserman, the talent and marketing agency that has a specialty in sports. “It’s a good idea to expand the reach because you are going to have the potential to attract a wider audience using more platforms.”

Many media companies have experimented with “mega-casts” in recent years, using a suite of TV networks to nab more eyeballs for top properties. Viacom has broadcast its MTV Video Music Awards across multiple TV outlets and AT&T regularly airs games in the annual NCAA men’s basketball championship it shares with CBS on several of its cable holdings.

But Disney is testing something quite different. The ESPN and ABC broadcasts will each be tailored for different types of viewers, and the hope is that two differentiated broadcasts can do more to broaden the NFL’s appeal than merely running the same thing over multiple channels.

ABC expects to dive deeper into the stories of the young players and what being picked means for them, as well as making more of Nashville, where the Draft will take place, says Rob Mills, ABC’s senior vice president of alternative programming, specials and late night. “We are confident that anyone who tunes in and thinks they are going to see ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ will stay, because you are going to get that same kind of satisfaction,” he says.

Roberts will anchor the first round of picks, and ABC’s coverage will feature the on-air crew of ESPN’s “College GameDay” as well as Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. On Saturday, ABC will air ESPN’s telecast and the NFL’s NFL Network will also broadcast the event.  Roberts teases that ABC viewers will also get some surprises, suggesting other celebrities could make cameos.

ESPN will serve up what football die-hards expect, says Wingo, but the network is also prepared for whatever twists and turns arise. “It’s the only true reality show there is,” he notes, with hundreds of cameras following new NFL hopefuls. Wingo has seen drama in past years, such as the time a video leaked of one college player with a bong made from a gas mask. “There is no outline. There is no script.” Every new development can affect the next season for any of the NFL’s teams.

ESPN and ABC have been working on the plan since the fall, says ESPN’s Markman, when they heard about the rights package Disney would have for the Draft this year. Fox is not televising the event.

“It’s great theater,” says Roberts, who got her start as a sportscaster. So too is the work being done to court the NFL behind the camera.

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