SBJ/March 10-16, 2014/Media

Dish TV deal signals move of ESPN Classic to VOD channel

ESPN Classic’s 19-year history as a full-fledged TV channel is nearing an end. In its place, the channel best known for its pre-HD footage of old games is being reinvented as a video-on-demand channel.

The move is one of the overlooked parts to Disney’s massive carriage deal with Dish Network, which was announced last week. The long-term Dish Network deal includes rights to an over-the-top service, restrictions to Dish’s ad-skipping service, and launch agreements for SEC Network and Longhorn Network.

But the deal also includes language that will see Dish Network remove ESPN Classic as a 24/7 channel in place of an ESPN Classic VOD service that will use IP technology.

“This was a really cool part of our Dish Network deal,” said David Preschlack, executive vice president of affiliate sales and marketing for ESPN. “The next iteration of Classic is going to be a really powerful consumer proposition.”

Details on the service are scarce. Preschlack said he expects the VOD service to launch in the next couple of months. But he also said both ESPN and Dish Network executives still are figuring out how the channel will look and what it will offer. Executives envision a service with classic college football games in the run-up to the College Football Playoff and classic college basketball games in the run-up to the NCAA tournament. It also expects the service to be regionalized with offerings to appeal to a specific area’s fans.

“We cooked it up with Dish,” Preschlack said. “We don’t know how it will look yet. It is a work in progress.”

The service will be offered to other distributors as their carriage deals with ESPN end. Subscribers most likely will have to subscribe to a digital tier to get access to the service.

The creation of an ESPN Classic VOD service for Dish Network has a similar feel to the creation of ESPN Goal Line and ESPN Buzzer Beater in 2010. Those whip-around Red Zone-style channels were created during ESPN’s Time Warner Cable carriage negotiations. Those channels later were made available to other distributors.

The move to VOD signals the end to a channel that ESPN bought from a group including Brian Bedol for $175 million in 1997. The channel never brought in big viewer numbers, and ESPN ran into problems obtaining rights to old games for many leagues.

In 2009, ESPN decided to make ESPN Classic a sports-tier channel, trading its carriage with ESPNU, which is where the company saw more growth potential. ESPN Classic dropped from a distribution footprint of 64 million homes in October 2009 to 29 million homes in March 2014, according to Nielsen.

“We think it’s going to make the ESPN Classic brand more valuable,” Preschlack said. “This was a collaborative effort with Dish Network.”

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