In a bid to breathe some new life into the SportsCenter franchise, ESPN is readying seven additional live hours of its signature program, with plans to reduce the spot load and incorporate more content culled from Bristol’s online properties.
Beginning Monday, August 30, ESPN will telecast live SportsCenter programs on spinoff channel ESPNews, which reaches some 73 million US households. The revamped SportsCenter will air from 3 p.m.-6 p.m. and from 7 p.m.-11 p.m. ET.
Along with the existing telecasts that run on the flagship network, the seven additional daily hours brings the grand total of available live SportsCenter content to 16 hours per day.
Part of the impetus behind pumping up the SportsCenter brand has to do with giving the reporters an uninterrupted chain of live platforms from which to break news on-air. The new hours on ESPNews will plug the gaps that currently dot the ESPN SportsCenter schedule.
The new load of live shows will perforce nudge ESPN away from repeating SportsCenter on an endless wheel. The 3-6 p.m. shift will feature co-hosts Cindy Brunson and Robert Flores, and will incorporate online elements culled from ESPN.com and Bristol’s growing clutch of local sites, which serve New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago and Dallas. Fodder for the live telecasts includes digital staples such as user-generated video, interactive polls and ephemera gleaned from athletes’ Tweets and Facebook status updates.
ESPNews will offer a similar format in prime time, although the hosts will be refreshed. In most cases, the anchor team featured in ESPN’s 6 p.m. SportsCenter offering will be responsible for manning the desk during the 7 p.m. slot on ESPNews. Linda Cohn and Kevin Negandhi will steer the ship during the last three hours.
With the addition of the online fare to the linear TV show, ESPNews will pare down its SportsCenter ad inventory, said Eric Johnson, executive vp, multimedia sales. “With less commercial time, we’re making SportsCenter that much more valuable to our advertisers,” Johnson said. “By reducing the breaks from two minutes to 60 seconds, we can offer a much more exclusive, non-cluttered environment.”
ESPNews will also begin developing exclusive packages for marketers looking to “own” an entire hour, be they DVD or videogame purveyors looking to whip up support for a major release or studios trying to take over a show in advance of a big Friday opening. “We can strip out all the other advertisers and the local avails and the sponsor gets 8 minutes of commercial time to do anything they want,” Johnson said. “It’s a compelling proposition, and from where we stand, this sort of arrangement obviously comes with a nice premium.”
The digitally-infused SportsCenter will also serve as a simulacrum of how sports fans tend to consume digital content while watching live events on the tube. If the integrations are successful, the hybridized shows should seem that much more relevant to ESPNews’ younger audience.
At the same time, Bristol continues to explore ways to make commercial content more contextually relevant. “Many of the conversations with our clients are about how we can work together to make their advertisements more like content, and thereby ensure that the ads work harder for them,” Johnson said. “We’re always trying to push ourselves just a little further.”
As more digital fare pops up on the linear telecasts, Johnson anticipates a parallel migration from TV to the Web. In the coming weeks, ESPN.com and the five local sites will begin featuring more SportsCenter content, either in an anthologized or digest format.
Naturally, the network brass hopes the new-look SportsCenter will go a long way toward boosting ratings. Last week, ESPNews averaged 72,000 viewers in prime time, of which 42,000 were members of the 18-49 demo. In the same period, ESPN drew 1.25 million viewers, 45 percent of which (562,000) were adults 18-49.