Covering the Bases

Sep 6, 2004  •  Post A Comment

In Mark Shapiro’s vision of the future, by the end of this decade large numbers of Americans will be waking up to the sound of “Da-na-na, da-na-na.”

Yes, sports fans, those are the opening sounds of the network’s sports news show “SportsCenter.” They are musical notes that nearly any male over 18 can identify instantly.

“They should open their eyes to us, and when they close their eyes at night, their sign-off to the world should be ESPN and especially `SportsCenter,”‘ said Mr. Shapiro, the network’s executive VP of programming and production.

To facilitate the kind of growth that Mr. Shapiro envisions, ESPN this past June opened its digital center in Bristol, Conn. Modeled to be the production and distribution hub from which ESPN programming will emanate during the network’s second 25 years, the digital center “can move people to and from various platforms in split seconds,” Mr. Shapiro said. “Broadband, wireless, HD, ESPN Motion, the Internet-in every facet and in every face, sports fans should be consuming ESPN aplenty.”

ESPN is using only about 20 percent to 25 percent of the center’s capacity so far, mainly to produce the flagship show “SportsCenter” in HD. But NFL studio shows such as “Sunday NFL Countdown” will begin originating in HD this month, and “Baseball Tonight” will go high-definition next spring, said Bryan Burns, VP of strategic business planning and development for ESPN and head of the network’s HD service.

By next March ESPN will be using nearly 100 percent of the center’s capacity, Mr. Shapiro said.

The 120,000-square-foot digital center will allow for 4,000 hours of studio programming originally produced in hi-def each year. The center also enables video to be accessed by computers throughout ESPN offices around the world, allowing for video editing from multiple locations and faster repurposing of material for multiple platforms.

While the center allows for the creation and distribution of content across many devices, Mr. Shapiro said the network is platform-agnostic. “ESPN will serve up sports content on every platform imaginable. I don’t think there will be one killer application box that renders everything pointless,” he said.

He outlined his vision for how the average ESPN consumer, most likely a young male, would use ESPN on an average day in 2010-beginning when he wakes up to the opening bell of “Da-na-na” coming from the alarm built into his TV. He’ll watch “SportsCenter” for a half-hour or so, then log on to ESPN.com for more stats and information on his fantasy teams as he warms up his coffee. Next he’ll need some visual stimulation, so he’ll scroll over to ESPN Motion, the online video property, to ingest more highlights.

“As they are getting dressed, they are playing ESPN X Games music,” Mr. Shapiro said. “They come out, and on their way out to school, they are watching more `SportsCenter’ highlights on their wireless phones, while at the same time getting more information through ESPN.com [on the phone],” he said.

When this ESPN viewer of the future finishes his morning class, he’ll watch ESPN in hi-def over lunch. Once safely ensconced back on the couch at home, he’ll peruse the on-demand offerings from the network. He’ll then visit ESPN Broadband and watch archived episodes of “Around the Horn” and “Pardon the Interruption.” He might next catch the end of last night’s game on-demand, and polish it off with some behind-the-scenes footage from the latest ESPN movie.

In the evening he’ll consume a fresh edition of “SportsCenter” and then head over to the ESPN Zone for dinner, devouring ESPN the Magazine over a burger. He’ll go to bed listening to ESPN radio and watching a final edition of “SportsCenter.”

While Mr. Shapiro’s scenario might seem to suggest ESPN overload, it’s not implausible. After all, the average male 18 to 34 already consumes two hours and 41 minutes of ESPN media in some form daily, according to network numbers.

What’s missing, though, from Mr. Shapiro’s vision is any sort of all-in-one convergence. That’s because he believes people will consume content on a multitude of platforms. “I don’t believe there is one killer application that puts radio, TV, broadband to bed for good and serves as the panacea,” he said.

“[Consumers] just want it all at their fingertips at one time. They don’t care how it’s delivered. For the foreseeable future there will continue to be a multitude of assets and platforms from which to consume sports, and consumers will be amenable to paying a subscription fee.”