In all-sports news race, ESPN gets head start with Nov. launch

Media Watch

June 11, 1996|By Milton Kent

Is there enough sports news for three full-time all-sports news channels? Better yet, will your cable system carry all or any of them?

Those are the questions left after ESPN came clean yesterday on one of the worst-kept secrets in sports television when it announced its long-rumored plan to launch such a channel, starting Nov. 1.

Dubbed ESPNEWS, the channel will carry scores, highlights, analysis and live coverage of news conferences, but no live broadcasts of games, leaving that to its older, bigger brothers, ESPN and ESPN2.

"This is a logical expansion of our franchise. We've done some extensive and exhaustive market research and found that our viewers want a new sports network and they want it from ESPN," said ESPN president and CEO Steven Bornstein.

John Walsh, executive editor of ESPN, said the new channel will be separate and distinct from the other two channels, with an entirely different on-air and production staff, but added that personnel from ESPN and ESPN2 could make appearances on the new network.

The new ESPN project will compete against NewSport, already in approximately 9 million homes, and will take the air a month before the planned December launch of CNN/SI, a joint venture of the all-news channel and Sports Illustrated.

Bornstein said that plans for ESPNEWS have been around for some time and are "independent of what anybody else is doing out there." Still, many industry observers believe the channnel's launch is designed to blunt CNN/SI.

In a statement, Jim Walton, the executive in charge of CNN/SI, said his company's venture "represents a combination of the strongest brand name in television news gathering and the strongest brand name in sports journalism. Together, we're confident we'll have a network with a powerful and unique appeal to viewers, cable operators and advertisers."

Of course, you have to wonder how many cable systems -- many of which are at or approaching the limit of the number of channels they can offer -- will be able to carry one, two or all three of the all-sports news channels.

CNN/SI should get a boost from the fact that Time-Warner, owner of Sports Illustrated and the nation's largest cable operator, is expected to merge with Turner Broadcasting, owner of CNN, which should give it almost automatic entry into millions of homes.

However, ESPN, seen in more than 68.4 million American homes, and ESPN2, the fastest-growing network to be launched in the 1990s with placement in 33.4 million homes, are proven performers and are 80 percent owned by Disney, one of the nation's other media behemoths, which should give some heft to the new channel.

"It's hard to say who will win," said John Mansell, a senior analyst with Paul Kagen Associates, a media analysis firm.

Mansell said cable operators have historically felt "something of a kinship to anything [CNN owner] Ted Turner has done, because he helped put the cable industry on the map and helped distinguish it from broadcasting." But Turner's sale of the company to Time-Warner and the booming strength of ESPN could throw things up for grabs.

Mitchell Schmale, a spokesman for Comcast, which operates systems in Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties, covering more than 300,000 subscribers in the Baltimore area, said Comcast would not carry ESPNEWS or CNN/SI at either's launch but would wait to gauge consumer interest, holding open the prospect of adding both channels.

Representatives from TCI, the city's cable carrier, could not be reached for comment.

Here's to the winners

Congratulations to channels 2 and 13, which shared Capital Region Emmy honors for their sportscasts, in awards that were handed out Saturday night in competition covering stations from Baltimore, Washington, Richmond, Va., and Norfolk, Va.

Channel 2's sportscast also received top honors from the Maryland branch of the Associated Press.

In other Emmy developments, Channel 45 and Home Team Sports were honored for their specials last September commemorating Cal Ripken's iron man achievement, and the telecast of the record-breaking game received honors for HTS for play-by-play.

Black Rock doings

Legendary CBS golf director-producer Frank Chirkinian, who turned 70 last week, has received the 1996 Distinguished Service Award from the PGA in recognition of his groundbreaking work in televising the sport.

Meanwhile, the network announced that it has pried the talented Craig James away from ESPN to be its college football studio analyst when CBS resumes weekly gridiron coverage this fall.

The beer remains cold

We offer a belated doff of the cap to Orioles broadcaster Chuck Thompson, who celebrated his 75th birthday yesterday.

There are few things that more pleasantly signal the onset of summer than Thompson's dulcet tones doing baseball, and it's way past time that his baseball Hall of Fame honor be matched with his enshrinement in the football hall.

Pub Date: 6/11/96

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