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ESPN to Launch ESPNU,
By Mike Reynolds -- Multichannel News, 9/7/2004 5:52:00 PM
ESPN has given itself two birthday presents as it celebrates its
The sports giant, which celebrates 25 years on the air Tuesday,
announced that it would add a college-sports network and a replica
of ESPN in HD to its portfolio of properties next year.
Tapping into the company's vast array of NCAA rights, ESPNU will bow
in March with a lineup heavy on live events. ESPN officials said
ESPNU would present primarily Division I football, as well as men's
and women's basketball, during its rookie campaign.
The ESPNU announcement ended months of speculation that ESPN would
leverage its college rights and launch a dedicated service. It also
comes as ESPN is the subject of a Department of Justice inquiry
about its control of those rights and its warehousing of games.
Moreover, competitorsCollege Sports Television and FSN have stepped
up their games in the space. CSTV recently acquired rights to the
Mountain West Conference, previously held by ESPN, and it will begin
airing action from that circuit in 2006. FSN converted three out-of-
market regional networks to college services this past weekend.
For its part, ESPN2 HD will launch as a simulcast of ESPN2,
including more than 100 live telecasts in its first year of
operation-- college football, men's and women's college basketball,
the Little League World Series, Major League Baseball and the
National Hockey League -- all of which will be originally produced
and distributed in high-definition.
Together, ESPN HD and ESPN2 HD will immediately offer viewers more
than 6,000 hours of originally produced high-definition programming
and more than 2,000 original programs, according to network
Bryan Burns, ESPN's HD chief, said ESPN has contracts with all major
cable operators except Time Warner Cable, and with direct-broadcast
satellite providers DirecTV Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp.
ESPN2 is currently available to some 50 million homes and, as of
last spring, ESPN HD was in more than 1 million homes, according to
"We're now going to go out with ESPN2 HD and see where we get," he
said, noting that the fee is part of the company's overall
"We're really ramping up. Not only do we walk the walk, but we're
far ahead of the curve," he added. "ESPN2 HD is a great value for
our distributor partners and fans."
Burns said ESPN2 HD would begin much like ESPN HD did, with live
events. It will add some studio programming -- National Football
League programming will begin this weekend in HD.
He added that ESPN Original Entertainment productions -- like
Playmakers, upcoming poker series Tilt and the movies like Hustle
(the Pete Rose biography) -- will all be in HD and air on
"Long term, our goal is to shoot everything in HD, but it will take
time," Burns said. "We have the World's Strongest Man competitions
that were shot years ago in South Africa. We can't go back in and
redo those in the format. Over time, most everything on our air will
be in HD, but it will take some time."
In addition to football and hoops, ESPN officials said ESPNU would
feature baseball, softball, volleyball, lacrosse, hockey, wrestling
and spring football, plus select high-school-football telecasts.
Many events will air exclusively on the network, while other ESPNU
telecasts will coexist with events syndicated on other outlets
regionally through ESPN Regional Television arrangements.
In fact, ERT will handle the primary production responsibilities for
ESPNU out of its Charlotte, N.C., headquarters. ERT is the nation's
largest syndicator of college-sports programming, with more than 740
events produced each year, accounting for more than 2,000 live
and/or original hours.
ESPN plans to promote and integrate ESPNU with its other holdings:
bowing an ESPNU site within ESPN.com (espn.go.com); making
programming and content available to the ESPN Broadband, ESPN Mobile
and ESPN Interactive TV platforms; and including inserts within ESPN-
Senior vice president of programming John Wildhack said ESPNU would
offer comprehensive studio programming, cut-ins and other news
reports from game sites, as well as replays of high-profile college
games that originally aired on ABC Sports, ESPN and ESPN2.
Wildhack said ESPNU will give "college-sports fans more of what they
want. There is not a better opportunity for ESPN than this network,
considering the roots of our company that go back to college
basketball and football and our relationship with the NCAA."
Wildhack pointed out that ESPN is in the midst of an 11-year
agreement (through 2012-13) to televise numerous NCAA championships,
including Olympic Games sports events in each of the three
He noted that ESPN has worked with the NCAA to "identify growth
properties" like the women's basketball and softball championships
and the men's College World Series
Wildhack said ESPN had been working on this service in one shape or
form for more than 12 months, and it was "absolutely not" motivated
by the DOJ inquiry. He declined further comment on the matter.
He deferred questions about rate cards to other network officials
who weren't immediately available for comment. He did say, "We think
the lineup we're putting together over the first 12 months should be
attractive to distributors."
All high-definition programming on ESPN HD and ESPN2 HD will be
delivered to cable systems and satellite providers in the 720p
"ESPN HD is driving our affiliates' high-definition business, and
the addition of ESPN2 HD makes the consumer proposition that much
more compelling," said Sean Bratches, president of Disney and ESPN
Networks affiliate sales and marketing, in a prepared statement.
"Our affiliates, our advertisers and, most important, our viewers
are requesting more HD content, and as we've seen the demand
skyrocket, we're committing to fulfilling that need," Bratches added.