ESPNEWS focuses on outcomes for viewers who have to know

Media Watch

November 01, 1996|By Milton Kent

BRISTOL, Conn. -- Don't bother asking "SportsCenter" anchor Dan Patrick if ESPNEWS, the all-sports news network that launches today, will be a success, for he doesn't have an answer.

"I'm just like everyone else. I have no clue, but I know that these people know what they're doing," Patrick said yesterday. "Five years from now, we may be sitting in this room as we launch ESPN4 and say, 'Yeah, there was a niche.' "

Even in the ever-diversifying, fragmenting world of cable television, ESPNEWS and its soon-to-launch competitor, CNN/SI, are the ultimate niches: channels for people who love sports, but don't have time for events.

Instead of showing a viewer the actual games, the two new channels will provide the outcomes, all day every day. If you're the type of person who absolutely has to know how Wayne Gretzky scored the game-winning goal or how Mike Mussina struck out 12 batters in a shutout or has to see George Foreman weigh in before a fight and has to see them immediately, then these channels will be for you.

"This is the evolution of television," said ESPN president and CEO Steve Bornstein during a luncheon yesterday. "We launched this network 17 years ago. We're just now going to 24 hours."

Sports fans are certainly passionate about getting their product. One need only see the success of ESPN, launched in 1979 and now seen in more than 70 million American homes, or ESPN2, which opened for business three years ago and is available in 40 million homes, and the rash of regional channels such as Home Team Sports, to see how important games and competition are to the national consciousness.

But the operating theory has always been that the viewer would get the events first and then the scores, on "SportsCenter" or some derivation. Will the home viewer respond to getting just the scores without the event?

"Too often, we in the media are wondering how we can fit what we want to make available when we should be asking [consumers], 'What do you want?' Bornstein said. "I'm very confident that in five years, ESPNEWS will be a very vibrant and strong force."

Just as important a question is whether the market can support two such channels, not to mention Fox SportsNet, a national conglomeration of regional channels that also debuts tonight at 6 p.m.

CNN/SI, a hybrid of the all-news channel and Sports Illustrated, has announced plans to launch on Dec. 12, headed by an experienced team of executives, which includes Jean McCormick, who was coordinating producer of ESPN's "Outside the Lines" documentary series.

CNN/SI poses not only an editorial challenge to ESPNEWS, but a financial one as well. The new CNN channel is the first joint venture of the merger of Turner Broadcasting and Time-Warner, which is also one of the largest cable operators in the country.

CNN/SI officials have not announced how many subscribers they expect to have at launch, but an industry source said yesterday it will be more than 1.5 million.

Here in Bristol, ESPN employees say they aren't concerned about what their competition in Atlanta does.

"Without 'SportsCenter,' there would be no CNN/SI, there would be no Fox Sports News," said ESPN executive editor John Walsh. "I think it's only proper that the son of 'SportsCenter' go now."

The format of ESPNEWS will resemble a continuously running "SportsCenter." Each telecast day will begin at 1 p.m., with a 30-minute show that repeats until 4 p.m., when another live 30-minute show will repeat until 7: 30, when the network will re-air the 6: 30 "SportsCenter" from ESPN.

At 8: 30, the network will air live half-hour programs until the last game of the day is over. The show that covers that game will repeat until the next new program at 1 p.m. the next day, though live updates will be provided as needed, and important news conferences will be carried.

Tonight's one-hour premiere will be carried on ESPN at 7 p.m. and ESPN2 will carry ESPNEWS during the halftimes of college basketball games and between periods of NHL games, but there will be little direct crossover of talent between the networks.

Twelve new anchors, including Pam Ward of WBAL (1090 AM) will staff the new network, though some analysts, such as Peter Gammons, Chris Mortenson and Fred Carter, will appear occasionally on ESPNEWS.

The new network will have to achieve success at a slower pace than its corporate brothers. ESPNEWS will launch today to just over 1.5 million subscribers, about 100,000 more than ESPN did in 1979, but at a time when the cable universe is substantially smaller than it was 17 years ago.

ESPN2, which went on the air three years ago, had 10 million subscribers at launch, as its corporate parents, ABC and Hearst, cut deals with cable operators to take the new channel in exchange for continued permission to carry their over-the-air stations.

Those "must carry" provisions are not in place now, and as a result, and because channel capacities on most cable systems are virtually maxed out, the third ESPN channel will not be available in nearly any big city.

George Bodenheimer, ESPN's executive vice president of sales and marketing, said the company is pitching cable operators, who buy the channels they carry from the providers, reduced rates for a package of the three channels.

Pub Date: 11/01/96

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