After moving up the premiere date for the much-anticipated documentary series about Michael Jordan and the 1990s Chicago Bulls to this Sunday, ESPN plans to air two versions of the ten-part project: one, with all the athletes’ rough language intact, will air on the company’s flagship cable network; the other, with profanity edited out, will air simultaneously on ESPN2.
“We take a lot of pride in sports as a communal viewing experience. All members of the family get to watch this,” says Connor Schell, executive vice president of content at ESPN, in an interview. “We felt this was the right thing to do.” Hearing the unedited interviews, he adds, “makes it feel more honest and more authentic and raw.”
On ESPN, viewers will hear every ‘F,’ ‘MF’ and ‘S.’ On ESPN2, those letters (when attached to words that are deemed scurrilous) will be bleeped out or masked by dropped audio.
ESPN fans should not expect to hear Scott Van Pelt break out the F-bombs in the near future or listen to Stephen A. Smith launch into a profanity-laced tirade on the next broadcast of “First Take.” ESPN has long maintained content standards that make its shows appealing to a broad audience, says Schell.
But executives at the Disney-owned sports-media giant wanted to make certain the widest possible audience could take a look at “Last Dance,” which has been in the works for several years. Jimmy Pitaro, ESPN’s president and Burke Magnus, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming acquisitions and scheduling, were also involved in the decision, Schell says.
The documentary series premieres on ESPN in the U.S. on Sunday nights over five weeks from April 19 through May 17, and will be available outside of the U.S. on Netflix.
“Last Dance” was always going to be a top priority for the company. Directed by Jason Hehir, the series features never-before-seen footage from the Bulls’ 1997-98 season as the team pursued its sixth NBA championship in eight years, and mixes it in with dozens of original interviews with players, coaches and other people who had a first-hand view during that time.
ESPN had previously planned to air it in June, around the NBA Finals, which typically guarantee a sizable audience coming in to sample the network’s schedule. Now, with live sports scuttled by the coronavirus pandemic, “Last Dance” offers ESPN a big-audience event that has suddenly become more unique.
“We were really excited about the possibility of airing this in June in the middle of a full, live-event calendar,” says Schell. “But obviously, given the circumstances of the world right now, we were excited to have content that’s this good, and honestly, this important to sports fans to be able to premiere this weekend.”
Executives have scrambled to fill the ESPN schedule with a host of alternate choices, some expected, others offbeat. Viewers in recent weeks have seen plenty of “SportsCenter,” “Get Up” and “First Take,” but also hours of classic sports matches; old Wrestlemania bouts; and even long stretches of spelling bees.
ESPN has tested crafting different versions of big events in the recent past. Last year, the company aired two different broadcasts of the NFL Draft – one for sports aficionados ran on ESPN, and another, with celebrity guests, dramatic athlete featurettes and co-anchor Robin Roberts, appeared on ABC. Indeed, the 2020 NFL Draft will be televised with similar circumstances, though some of the hoopla will be toned down for the times, according to executives involved with the broadcast.
Executives remain interested in “using our platforms smartly to reach segments of our audience,” says Schell. “We are always looking to innovate, but we’ve never done it with one of our original programs before.”
Above all, ESPN wants fans to have a chance to see the project. Director Hehir “did such an incredible job with the interviews, with 100-plus former players and journalists and participants. He elicited such incredible emotion from them, and we didn’t feel we wanted to distract from any of that,” says Schell. “We wanted to present it as he had created it, and in the words that were spoken in all of those conversations.”