SBJ/October 9 - 15, 2006/This Weeks News

Classic stretches in effort to grow

ESPN’s biggest on-screen change over the past year has occurred at ESPN Classic, which has been moving away from showing vintage games to a lineup featuring more original programming presented on a more consistent schedule.

The network has accompanied the move with an on-air change that features cleaner and brighter graphics and set designs.

The move speaks to some of the frustrations ESPN has been having with Classic, which has not been able to gain significant traction with cable operators. It is in 62 million homes, which puts it on par with networks such as WE: Women’s Entertainment and G4.

Classic was in just 30 million homes in December 2000, but its growth has paled in comparison with ESPN2, which has 91.7 million subscribers, though it launched just a year and a half before Classic.

The network’s rebranding, which started about a year ago, has been two-pronged. With a more up-to-date graphical look, it hopes to inform viewers why it is showing various games.

For example, it celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Sugar Ray Leonard-Thomas Hearns fight last month on its “ESPN Classic Remembers” series by showing the fight, having a panel of experts discuss it, and letting viewers know that the fight occurred 25 years ago, with comments coming in and out of breaks and a pop-up “navigation alert” during the broadcast.

“It’s letting the viewer know why they should be watching, and I don’t think we really did that in the past,” said John Papa, vice president of programming and acquisitions for ESPN Classic and ESPN News.

The second prong of the rebranding focuses on creating a more predictable schedule dominated by original programming. This week, for example, ESPN Classic is running “Stump the Schwab” every night at 7 p.m. ET. Every night at 8 p.m. it will have classic boxing programming. On four of the five nights at 9 p.m., it will run an old World Series of Poker telecast. And the 10 p.m. hour will be devoted to one of its countdown shows, “Who’s Number 1?” and “Top 5 Reasons … .”

The recent changes have helped ratings, which hit a 0.2 for prime time in July and September — record high numbers for both months.

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