ESPN’s Skipper Sails Rough Seas

May 29, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Last January, ESPN’s recently appointed programming head, John Skipper, addressed his first Television Critics Association Press Tour audience by announcing a new network initiative.

“We’re only going to make hits,” he said. “I only want to do successful shows.”

The lines were meant to provoke laughter, but it wasn’t exactly a joke. After debuting an unprecedented amount of content in 2005, the ESPN Original Entertainment brand has struggled to find a breakout hit. Over the past two years, EOE’s original series have averaged about 30 percent fewer viewers than the network’s programming overall. EOE also has seemingly narrowed its programming pipeline.

Seven months into his tenure, Mr. Skipper has managed to ride out a controversy over giving suspected steroid user Barry Bonds a reality series. Mr. Skipper also is set to announce three new projects: a trio of documentaries about Muhammad Ali, 10 hours of NASCAR documentary projects and the acquisition of a documentary feature film about the 1970s soccer team The New York Cosmos.

The new projects are part of a strategy to … actually, they’re not really part of any strategy. Not a public one, anyway.

When it comes to plotting a programming course, Mr. Skipper said he prefers to consider projects on a deal-by-deal basis rather than setting quotas for various genres.

“I don’t start the year by saying I want X number of documentaries and Y number of scripted dramas,” he said. “We’ll let the best ideas win.”

That isn’t to say the EOE programming mandate hasn’t changed.

In fact, the formerly boisterous EOE department, whose marketing efforts, press announcements and latest premieres were once inescapable, in recent months has become downright modest.

But with ESPN’s overall ratings on the rise due to traditional sports coverage, one has to wonder whether reality shows and dramas are even necessary to the success of the channel.

Mark Shapiro, ESPN’s executive VP of programming, left the network last October. Mr. Skipper took over Mr. Shapiro’s duties, as well as oversight of new media, under the title executive VP of content.

Fewer Originals Planned?

Under Mr. Shapiro’s reign, ESPN made an unprecedented effort to boost the EOE brand, which was established in 2001. During 2004 and 2005, Mr. Shapiro put on reality shows, documentaries, movies, scripted series and acquired Mark Burnett’s former NBC boxing series “The Contender.”

The best performer was a dramatic documentary on the late Dale Earnhardt, “3,” which was seen by 7.2 million viewers in its premiere, according to Nielsen Media Research.

But many efforts, such as “ESPN Hollywood,” “Stump the Schwab,” “Teammates” and “Tilt,” failed to move the needle.

Though the network insists the EOE department is busy as ever, there have been some signs of scaling back. The network has not announced a scripted dramatic series since “Tilt” in 2004, which was canceled. In addition to the New York Cosmos film, Mr. Skipper recently announced two other feature-length acquisitions-a less-expensive option for a network that previously produced all its own movies.

At the TCA press tour in January, the network announced three “Contender” specials and a single original: the horse-racing dramatic documentary “Ruffian.”

In a move that can be viewed either as forward-thinking multiplatform strategy or an erosion of the EOE mandate, “Ruffian” will premiere not on the sports network but on its fellow Disney property ABC.

Compare that with the previous January’s press tour, when the network showcased “Tilt,” announced a new dramatic series pilot and three upcoming original films-and boasted of having 30 more films in development. ESPN also announced two series for ESPN2-the daily “ESPN Hollywood” and a sports talk show.

Mr. Skipper denied the department’s ambitions have been reduced.

“My anticipation is that we will have more product on the air next year than this year, more this year than last year,” he said.

As for the lack of dramatic series, Mr. Skipper pointed to the network’s upcoming eight-episode historical limited series, “Bronx Is Burning,” and said other series projects are under consideration as well.

Bonding Experience

Some context: EOE represents only about 6 percent of ESPN programming. Year to date, ESPN total-day ratings have risen-9 percent overall. Though EOE has been quiet of late, ESPN has not. Mr. Skipper has made deals to bring NASCAR back to the network and to extend a partnership with World Cup soccer and elected not to renew the PGA Tour.

So with major deals being signed and ratings going up, the question arises: Does ESPN even need originals? After all, sports fans turn to ESPN to watch sports, not reality shows and dramas. The biggest EOE success story has been the “World Series of Poker,” which is essentially sports coverage.

“Clearly NFL [games] are going to do more [ratings on ESPN] than a series,” said John Mansell, senior analyst for Kagan Research. “But most other sports are probably less costly on an hourly basis than their original movies, and you have to consider the number of hours you get out of it.”

Brad Adgate, senior VP of research for Horizon Media, said entertainment originals are necessary for “throwing out a bigger fishnet.”

“You have your core viewer and by putting on a reality show or movie you can get some new eyeballs,” Mr. Adgate said.” It’s not like what they’re doing isn’t in the realm of sports. It’s still on brand for them.”

One recent EOE project that has attracted considerable attention is “Bonds on Bonds,” a series chronicling San Francisco Giants player Barry Bonds’ attempt to break Babe Ruth’s home-run record. Mr. Bonds has been at the center of the steroid use controversy and is the subject of a recent unflattering biography.

Though reality series starring unlikable celebrities are common across the cable spectrum, sportswriters and media pundits blasted the decision to schedule “Bonds.” Some said giving Mr. Bonds a series was rewarding him for obnoxious, and possibly illegal, behavior. Others claimed putting him on the payroll compromised ESPN’s sports journalism integrity. The New York Post described a “palace revolt” inside ESPN over the show, which averaged a 0.4 national household rating. Last week the network put the series on hiatus.

Mr. Skipper described the decision to order the show as “the most agonizing” he’s ever made, but also said he has no regrets.

“I think [the criticism] was sincere but misguided,” he said. “We write a big check to the NFL, yet still cover them. This was more about the animosity the press has toward Bonds than anything.”

Other programming decisions Mr. Skipper has made have been far less controversial, but key to the network’s future. Though many networks speak of multiple platforms, Mr. Skipper is planning a truly multifaceted approach to the return of NASCAR this fall.

The plans include 10 hours of documentaries, a “100 Great NASCAR Moments” series of interstitials, a 200-page coffee table book, a NASCAR DVD collection, a NASCAR CD soundtrack-and, of course, plenty of content for the network’s broadband channel, ESPN 360.