SBJ/April 14-20, 2014/Media

Turner, ESPN expect innovative supplemental feeds to return

Sports television has just come out of one of its most innovative periods in years, thanks to Turner Sports’ “Teamcast” around the NCAA tournament and ESPN’s “Megacast” around the BCS championship. These weren’t simply alternate camera feeds. Rather, both services involved completely different productions, giving viewers different ways to watch the same game on television.

These days, almost all the innovation in sports media is coming on the digital side. But what made “Teamcast” and “Megacast” unique is that the innovation came to the television screen. For me, this type of programming has the potential to mark the biggest change in how people watch sports on TV since DirecTV launched its Red Zone Channel in 2005.

During the Final Four, Turner’s “Teamcast” allowed fans to watch the games on TNT or truTV with announcers and producers favoring a specific team. Three months earlier, ESPN’s “Megacast” around the BCS championship allowed viewers to see the game in real time from different points of view on ESPNews and ESPN2.

In both cases the results were good enough that network executives expect to do them again. “We definitely aren’t going to pull it off the table,” Craig Barry, Turner Sports’ senior vice president of production, said of “Teamcast.”

It’s easy to see why. “Teamcast” delivered gaudy ratings numbers. During the Kentucky-Wisconsin game, TNT’s Kentucky feed drew 4.3 million viewers, which cracked the top 10 for all cable programs on the week. TruTV’s Wisconsin feed drew 1.6 million viewers, a figure that would delight many leagues and many cable channels. Those figures come on top of the 10.4 million viewers who watched the traditional telecast on TBS, making it the most watched college basketball game in cable history.

This offers more proof that these telecasts don’t cannibalize the main feed.

Ratings for the supplemental feeds were not nearly as high for ESPN’s “Megacast.” ESPN2’s “BCS Title Talk,” where ESPN analysts discussed the game in real time, drew 389,000 viewers, and ESPNews’ “BCS Film Room,” where college coaches analyzed the game, drew 100,000. The regular BCS telecast on ESPN drew 25.6 million viewers, which stands as cable TV’s biggest audience so far this year.

Despite the low viewer numbers on ESPN2 and ESPNews, the effort received much critical praise, and word-of-mouth support around “Megacast” persuaded ESPN to give it another run.

“I have every expectation that we will do it again around the college football playoff,” said Burke Magnus, ESPN’s senior vice president of programming acquisitions.

In sports media, competitors are not shy about copying innovative ideas. I can see Fox offering a similar suite of services around the World Series this October or NBC supplementing its Super Bowl telecast with an alternate offering on NBC Sports Network. It wouldn’t surprise me to see ESPN try something around the NBA Finals this summer.

“It’s an incredibly simple notion,” Magnus said. “It wasn’t in a programmer’s DNA to do anything to detract from the main event in the past. In the world we live in today audiences are so fragmented. The notion that you can capture more fans and more viewers through multiple presentations is not as far-fetched as it probably was 10 years ago.”

For Turner and ESPN efforts next year, viewers should expect tweaks. Look for Turner to do more to direct viewers to the TBS telecast — using something like an on-screen bug. Given the promotion in earlier rounds, I was surprised by the confusion around Turner’s channels. In fact, that confusion could account for the high viewership numbers on TNT and truTV.

I expect ESPN to make it easier to watch games from its supplemental channels. On the coaches’ show, the game was on in the background, making it difficult to follow. ESPN will fix that problem next year.

For Turner, the “Teamcast” worked as another way for the company to surround a big event like the Final Four, in addition to its digital and social media offerings. This was the first time the Final Four was telecast on cable. “Teamcast” showed some of the advantages of producing a big event in a cable environment.

“Because we’re in the business of media, and not just television, we look at it from a 360-degree view,” Barry said. “Between the ratings and the social canvas and the digital distribution, this was clearly a successful event for us.”

John Ourand can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.

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