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ESPN2 Out to Remake Identity

Jul 25, 2005  •  Post A Comment

In an effort to yank ESPN2 out of the shadow of powerhouse flagship ESPN, the sister channel long considered an outlet for ESPN’s overflow and alternative sports coverage is refocusing its prime time as a sports entertainment destination of its own.

To that end, ESPN2 has scheduled a fall slate of nightly originals. In addition to the recently debuted entertainment news show “ESPN Hollywood” and the upcoming pundit program “Quite Frankly,” the network is set to announce a daily prime-time version of “Teammates,” which originally ran as a six-episode special, and a high school documentary series called “Full Ride.”

The result will be three daily prime-time shows exclusive to ESPN2. Executives also are developing as-yet-undefined late-night companion programming.

“We’ve set out to create an identity for ESPN2 beyond what’s been out there previously,” said David Berson, senior VP of program planning and promotion. “It’s been in the shadow of ESPN. ESPN2 and ESPN still have a lot of live events, but now we’ve changed it so the live events are followed by original entertainment on ESPN2, whereas on ESPN live events are followed by news and information.”

The move comes as ESPN2, which launched in 1993, approaches the 90 million-subscriber mark, a distribution plateau that has been reached so far by only the Discovery Channel and ESPN. In terms of ratings, ESPN2 has also been closing the gap on its big brother.

Ratings for ESPN and ESPN2 grew evenly, about 8 percent, from 2003 to 2004 among total viewers and adults 18 to 49. In the first two quarters of this year, however, the gap shrank between the 18 to 49 ratings for ESPN and those of ESPN2. Whereas in 2004 about 700,000 average nightly 18 to 49 viewers differentiated the networks, the average gap during the first two quarters of 2005 was only about 400,000, according to Nielsen Media Research. This has less to do with ESPN2 growing, however, than with ESPN losing 18 to 49 viewers, particularly due to a lackluster NBA playoff season.

This year network owner Disney boosted ESPN2’s programming budget to help the channel establish a firmer identity. Though executives declined to specify the budget, Mr. Berson said, “It’s fair to say it’s a major company priority and we are very much willing to invest to continue to grow ESPN2. Launching three daily shows is an example of that.”

One thing that will not change is the channel’s name. Though the “2” emphasizes a second-fiddle status to ESPN, Mr. Berson said internal studies show the name has not been a hindrance to the channel’s development.

“It’s something we get asked about quite often, but through our research the name has tremendous equity,” he said.

Looking at the new prime-time lineup, “Teammates” is a “Newlywed Game”-style game show featuring athletes from top teams competing to show how well they know each other, their team and their coaches. ESPN televised six episodes in April and has greenlighted more than 100 new episodes to run exclusively on ESPN2 as a nightly series.

“Full Ride” is a four-episode documentary series profiling high school football players entering their senior year who hope to gain Division I scholarships.

In October, the network will debut the latest ESPN Original Entertainment movie, “Four Minutes,” marking the first time a telepic will premiere on ESPN2 instead of ESPN.