In the wake of the National Hockey League’s decision to cancel its 2004-05 season, ESPN has fast-tracked its summer programming plans, which include five new original series and two renewals. The programming will take the place of hockey games previously scheduled to run on its cable sports networks.
The NHL annulment opened up hundreds of prime-time hours on ESPN and ESPN2. To fill the gaps, the ABC-owned sports network has decided to accelerate programming planned for a summer launch, which means the debuts are being moved from July to April.
David Berson, VP of program planning and promotion for ESPN and ESPN2, said the hockey cancellation did not catch the network off guard. “Talks of the NHL season coming to an end have been circulating since last summer,” he said. “We are prepared with a compelling lineup of replacement programming for the remainder of the regular season and the playoffs.”
The new series are an eclectic group that includes a competitive bowling show, a game show and an ESPN-style revival of the campy 1980s classic “Battle of the Network Stars.” “We have a little bit of everything,” said Bob Chesterman, a coordinating producer for ESPN’s Original Entertainment department.
The shows are:
ESPN is also bringing back the sports trivia show “Stump the Schwab” and the stunt contest series “I’d Do Anything” for second seasons. ESPN describes “I’d Do Anything” as a reality series that asks fans to perform challenging tasks in order to grant friends a sports fantasy. One recent stunt, shot in Redondo Beach, Calif., required contestants to play miniature golf while surrounded by swarms of bees.
All seven shows will launch April 11 and 12 and are produced under the ESPN Original Entertainment banner.
About 100 NHL games were scheduled to run on ESPN and ESPN2 during the 2004-05 season. Regular-season games run on ESPN2, and both networks run playoff games. ESPN has until April 15 to exercise its one-year option for the next NHL season, which will cost $60 million.
Before the NHL players union and team owners became locked in a labor dispute that brought the season to a halt, games averaged a .2 on ESPN2, unchanged from the previous year, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Though the numbers are decent for their respective networks, hockey is an expensive production. At the same time, low-cost offerings such as ESPN2’s “The Bass Professor” can draw a .3. Currently ESPN is running college basketball instead of NHL games, which ESPN’s executive VP of programming Mark Shapiro has pointed out draw more viewers than the NHL.
Hockey fans are notoriously loyal, however, and there’s no question ESPN enjoys being the only channel to carry all four major sports franchises.
“We have some decisions to make,” Mr. Berson said. “The continued labor uncertainty and not knowing when play will resume makes a final decision tougher, [but] we are optimistic there is a future for the NHL and ESPN.”
Some analysts believe ESPN is reluctant to relinquish the franchise, but is more than willing to use the cancellation controversy to negotiate a better deal for next season.
Overall, ratings for ESPN and ESPN2 are essentially unchanged in the most recent quarter compared with the same time period last year.