SBJ/July 28-Aug. 3, 2014/Media

Getting the studio into the mix

SEC Network’s reason-for-being is its live events, particularly football. But in the run-up to the channel’s Aug. 14 launch, network executives are spending as much time planning strategy around its studio and shoulder programming.

That strategy will be evident in the first four hours of the channel, which is owned and operated by ESPN.

SEC Network will go live on that Thursday at 6 p.m., with a three-hour studio show, “SEC Now,” which will be followed by an episode of “SEC Storied,” a show about famous SEC alums and fans.

“For our first shows, we want to highlight the history of the conference and the importance of it,” said Justin Connolly, ESPN’s senior vice president of programming for college networks.

The “SEC Now” studio show will be set up as a whip-around show, taking viewers to all of the conference’s 14 campuses and offering a taste of the types of live sports that the channel will cover.

For example, one of the live events that will be featured on opening night will be Arkansas’ women’s soccer match against Creighton. Even though this will be an early season exhibition between the two schools, it will provide the network some of the live programming it has promised, while also giving Arkansas’ athletic department the chance to test its live production skills. The schools will produce much of the live content for the channel.

“We are going to try to do as many live sports as we can on this channel,” Connolly said.

The network’s most valuable content, its live football, will kick off two weeks after the launch on Thursday, Aug. 28, with two games. That will lead into a season where SEC football will dominate Thursday nights (with two windows) and Saturdays (with three).

In the 14 days between SEC Network’s launch and its first football game, the channel will focus its programming on one school per day, complete with news and information, and classic games. The final two schools to be featured will be South Carolina and Texas A&M — the two schools that will play in the network’s first football game on Aug. 28.

When it does not have live events, SEC Network executives still want to focus on live programming as much as possible, with studio shows and its simulcast of Paul Finebaum’s radio show, which runs Monday to Friday for four hours per day.

In looking at the regular week, SEC Network on Mondays primarily will be devoted to studio programming recapping the previous weekend’s games and providing story lines for the coming week’s games. “Monday is a day we’re light on events,” Connolly said.

The network plans to fill prime-time hours during the rest of the week, Tuesday through Friday, with live sports programming and will have studio programming leading into and out of those events. Weekends will be “wall-to-wall” with live events.

In terms of new programming, Connolly said he was particularly optimistic about a film-room show that the channel has planned.

“Our main challenge is in staffing,” Connolly said. “We have a lot of ideas. But it’s about finding the people and the resources to be live as often as we want to be.”

To that end, SEC Network will rely on the production might at ESPN to fill in the gaps.

“We’ve tapped into the resources of ESPNU, and are leaning on them for help in our coverage of Olympic sports,” said Stephanie Druley, SEC Network’s vice president of production for college networks. “We have to remain authentic to the SEC. Everybody knows about the fan passion around this conference. Our margin for error is basically zero.”

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