SBD/August 22, 2013/Media

Skipper Talks Importance Of NBA Rights, Skepticism On A La Carte During Media Day

ESPN President John Skipper said the net is intent on remaining a broadcast partner with the NBA and he expects "to be aggressive in doing that.” Skipper said during ESPN's Media Day yesterday, “There are plenty of live sports rights, but the ones that make a difference are scarce.” He called the NBA a "critical product" for ESPN and added there are "not many things that move the needle like that." The net's current rights deal expires after the '15-16 season, and there have been rumors Fox will make a heavy play for the NBA to add content to the new FS1. Skipper addressed speculation that web-based platforms are increasingly competing for major sports rights, saying, “It is incomprehensible to me that the NBA would decide to put their games on a digital platform, and that sports fans are going to make a transformation, saying, ‘I’m going to go to Yahoo to watch my games tonight.’ I don’t think that’s going to happen. I don’t think they have any way to monetize those rights in the same way that traditional (networks can).” Meanwhile, Skipper noted ESPN was outbid by Fox for the FIFA World Cup broadcast rights. “That’s a blind auction,” he said. “You put a number in an envelope, they open up the envelope and the highest number wins. We don’t like that kind of negotiation.”

A LA CARTE NOT PRACTICAL: Skipper addressed several other topics during a 90-minute meeting with the assembled media. He said an a la carte pricing system for cable channels "is not a good solution for whatever the issue is here." Skipper: "It is not particularly beneficial to anybody. Right now there is an issue of price pressure. But the $73 for 200-plus channels kind of works for almost everybody, other than some people for whom it’s a financial burden. It subsidizes a big system of content. There is better content now to consume on video than there’s ever been. There’s a discussion about the golden age of television -- this is the only golden age of television. ... This ecosystem works to provide lots and lots of choice for a very insignificant cost on any sort of metric. If you break it up and charge it on a per-program basis or per-network basis -- which by the way has very little chance of happening, despite there being a couple senators floating this around -- it just won’t work.” Skipper said 83% of households that get ESPN watch the network. He added of a la carte ever becoming a reality: “Because of the rights we hold, we’d be fine. ... But channels 65 through 250 are going to go out business, or start producing inexpensive content, which will be lousy. There won’t be this beautiful content that you have this opportunity to pick from, because they won’t be able to afford it.” Skipper said, “Specialty channels, serving specialty interests, will not survive in an a la carte world. However, we’re talking hypotheticals. That’s just not getting ready to happen.”

COUNTDOWN TO AIR TIME: Skipper said Keith Olbermann’s new 11:00pm ET show on ESPN2 will be “smart, provocative, funny,” and Olbermann will begin each episode with a monologue. He added, “What Jon Stewart does for the news for the day, I think Keith will do for the sports news of the day.” He said of welcoming Olbermann back to the net after an acrimonious departure 16 years ago, “We’re not looking to provide a halfway house for people who’ve had issues here and bring them back in. It’s not about whether they’ve had issues. It’s just like with Nate Silver -- what are the benefits and what are the detriments." He added, "We’re going to judge all those people on their own merits. We don’t have a list of people who can’t come back, we’ve never had that. But there has been some sense in the culture that if you leave, we’re not sure we’re going to bring you back. We probably are turning that a little bit.”
 
WHITLOCK'S VISION: Jason Whitlock last week said he was excited to rejoin ESPN because of the opportunity to create a "black Grantland." Skipper said while Whitlock’s new site will not have that title, it will be given something that is African-American specific. Skipper: “We are quite comfortable with a title that is connotative. ... We’ll come up with something that will be evocative.” Skipper said ESPN will aim to expand the site’s content across its platforms, building the brand out along the same vein as espnW or Grantland. Whitlock will help the brand with talent acquisition, searching for new African-American writers.

OTHER TOPICS: Skipper acknowledges ratings for "SportsCenter" are "down a little bit" this year after its most-viewed year ever in '12. He said, "We’re thinking about that, we’re trying to figure out what that means, and we’re trying to sharpen up because of that.” He added he did not believe FS1 is "going after a different audience." Skipper: "I don’t think there is a different audience. ... I don’t think they’re going to be bringing new people into watching sports, so by definition they have to be looking to siphon off some of our viewers.” Meanwhile, ESPN's carriage agreement with Dish Network expires at the end of September. Skipper said, "You’re never confident until midnight. But we’ve had very constructive discussions with Dish. It’s clear that we’re on a path to get a deal done.”
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