ESPN looks to several areas to fill programming holes

With a plethora of linear and digital networks to fill, as well as social media extensions, and no live games in the US happening due to the Covid-19 pandemic, ESPN is grappling with how to maintain a full programming schedule.

In a network interview with Burke Magnus, ESPN executive vice president of programming, acquisitions, and scheduling, released to press, he said the US sports media giant is trying to nimbly deploy a combination of talk and studio-based shows, archival content, and special events to help deal with the unprecedented, virus-fueled programming need.

“The challenge is that we now we need to replicate that dynamic 24 hours a day, seven days a week across multiple networks,” Magnus said. “That’s what in is in front of us in terms of long-range planning.”

The need for ESPN to be highly creative in its programming schedule is likely to extend for some time, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended against any gatherings larger than 50 people for the next eight weeks. Several properties have already said they will adhere to that guidance, meaning there wouldn’t be a resumption of play until mid-May at the earliest.

Already, flagship news and talk programs such as “SportsCenter,” “Get Up,” and “First Take,” are taking more even prominence in ESPN’s schedule, taking up the vast bulk of daytime programming on both ESPN and ESPN2. Those programs, however, have received a recent boost of news to cover from this week’s beginning of free agency in the National Football League, fueled in part by the the recent approval of a new decade-long labor deal in that league.

That free-agency discussion was then further boosted by the latest major development of New England Patriots star quarterback and six-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady announcing he will be leaving the Patriots after 20 years for another team.

There have also been an increased amount of re-airings of classic games, particularly in men’s and women’s college basketball. ESPN2 in particular on March 17 is devoting eight hours of evening programming to legendary contests. But Magnus said mining other sports for similarly large blocks of archival content is constricted by current rights agreements.

“Re-airing full-game presentations is not a right that we or other media companies typically have at our disposal at all times,” he said. “Each one of those circumstances requires individual conversations with the specific league or property to determine what’s possible.

“Since we have heard from fans that would love to relive full-game presentations, particularly at this moment in time, we are exploring that possibility for events and content that we don’t have re-air rights already. We are working with the leagues themselves to free up the possibility to show encore presentations and discussing how we can present them,” he said.

ESPN, which has forged a strong presence in sports documentaries in part through its “30 For 30” franchise, may also accelerate the timetable of debuting new film projects. One of the network’s highly anticipated films is The Last Dance, a ten-part miniseries on the 1998 Chicago Bulls, which was Michael Jordan’s last season with the National Basketball Association team, that was originally slated to debut in June. But the network can’t and won’t air something that isn’t actually finished.

“Any original content project that we can conceivably move up, we are obviously considering that, including films,” Magnus said. “I know some have asked about ‘The Last Dance’ and the realistic is that the production of that film has not yet been completed, so we are limited there at the moment. Obviously, you can’t air until it’s done.

Magnus also suggested ESPN may look to re-engage the more “stunt-event programming” strategy the network has used previously for themed efforts such as network anniversaries and “The Ocho Day.” In that latter initiative, which echoes the fictitious reference to ESPN8: The Ocho in the feature film Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, ESPN has picked a day each of the past several summers to show more seldom-broadcast sports in US such as sumo wrestling and cornhole.

“There are so many creative things we can do, similar to some of the initiatives we’ve done in the past,” Magnus said.