ESPN Game for New-Media Play

Apr 6, 2008  •  Post A Comment

Betting that Web video will be a big part of this year’s television upfront advertising sales market, ESPN is planning to launch several new programs that will appear only on broadband.
ESPN also is investing in new technology that will enable the network to integrate sponsors’ commercials into the online programming that most closely matches their TV ad buys.
The top cable sports network has long been involved in creating multiplatform advertising packages for sponsors. ESPN, with its multiple cable networks, Web sites, radio, mobile and magazine outlets, now sees original Web video as ready for prime time.
“We’re going to come to market with digital-only shows,” said Eric Johnson, executive VP of multimedia sales at ESPN.
Mr. Johnson said the network is developing six different programs that will appear weekly, biweekly or monthly. ESPN is talking to “SportsCenter” talent about anchoring one of them.
Mr. Johnson said ESPN is open to marketers becoming the presenting sponsors of a show, sponsoring a section of the Web site or buying spots on a show on an intermittent basis.
Last year, there was a lot of talk about digital video being bought in tandem with television during the upfront ad market, but the market didn’t embrace that model. Instead, digital properties were purchased separately.
Mr. Johnson expects it to be different this time around, and some buyers agree.
“This year, there’s definitely an emphasis on doing a lot of cross-platform deals and negotiating online video as a part of it,” said Chris Allen, VP and video innovation director at Starcom. “It’s been a banner year for online video.”
Mr. Johnson said he has sounded out numerous buyers and clients who want their messages to translate across all the media that host the programming they sponsor on the cable channel.
Online viewers are interested in original content, not just in repurposed snippets from television shows, Mr. Johnson said. That’s why ESPN is planning original shows. It also custom produces daily Web versions of some of its cable shows, like “SportsCenter Right Now” and “Baseball Tonight.”
That may help ESPN continue to capture more of the increasing sum marketers are allocating to digital purchases. Web video revenues remain small compared to TV, but they are becoming significant, Mr. Johnson said. The growth of Web video ad revenue doesn’t appear to be coming at the expense of traditional TV spots on the cable networks.
Moreover, Web video ad pricing looks attractive to ESPN. Spots may be more expensive in Web video on a cost-per-thousand viewers (CPM) basis, but buyers aren’t balking, Mr. Johnson said.
“They understand there’s a different type of engagement with video,” he said.
ESPN is upgrading its technology so it can target online advertising more effectively.
“We are building a video ad serving system that will give us tremendous flexibility,” Mr. Johnson said. “We will want to make sure to keep fans engaged and advertising to have greater sponsorship isolation.”
That means spots will stand out more than they do on TV, where they are placed adjacent to other sponsors’ messages in commercial pods.
ESPN hopes to have its new system in place by the start of college football season in September. That will enable the network to sell digital video sport-by-sport, or by daypart or programming type.
That would allow an advertiser to run a 30-second spot on “Baseball Tonight” on cable on Thursday and a 15-second spot on the “Baseball Tonight” highlights show on ESPN.com the same day.
“It’s great if they’re upgrading,” Mr. Allen said of ESPN’s ad placement system. “There are a lot of kinks to be worked out.”
ESPN also is working with Nielsen Connect and ad buyers to develop the metrics needed to accurately measure the impact of multiplatform campaign.
“We all want to get involved with content on different platforms. To do so, metrics are an important consideration,” said Peggy Green, vice chairman of Zenith Media, who is overseeing integrated media strategy at the agency.
The network has been accumulating qualitative data that will be distributed as part of a new series of presentations to marketers. The series features video interviews with sports fans who explain how they consume sporting events in a multi-screen environment.
“We know sports fans are early adopters, and that dovetails with our mission of serving the fan wherever and whenever they consume sports,” Mr. Johnson said.
At its upfront presentation, to be held during broadcast upfront week in May for a second straight year, ESPN will be touting plans to launch a live morning edition of “SportsCenter” on Aug. 8, the day the Beijing Olympics begin. Also, there likely will be talk of a new late night show to be produced on the West Coast.

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