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Volume 21 No. 2
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Review: ESPN hits limit with NFL highlight shows

ESPN pays more to the NFL than any other TV network — but its executives take pains to remind people that the rights fee is for much more than “Monday Night Football.”

A big part of the nearly $2 billion per year that ESPN pays goes to highlight rights. Those rights have allowed ESPN to launch more shows with more NFL content than ever before.

Is NFL programming so powerful that wall-to-wall highlights still draw viewers? So far, the numbers don’t look good. Viewership for two ESPN shows created from the highlight rights is lagging.

ESPN saw its October viewership drop 49 percent in the 4 p.m. ET slot that houses “NFL Live” this year (from 1.218 million watching “NFL Live” and “Rome Is Burning” last October to 623,000 this year). Similarly, ESPN2’s October viewership in the 6 p.m. ET slot that has “NFL 32” has posted a 45 percent drop from last October (from 430,000 viewers watching re-airs of “Pardon The Interruption” and “SportsNation” to 238,000).

Could the sheer volume of NFL programming be depressing ratings? It may be too early to tell, but one thing is for certain: Viewers can’t complain about missing any action.

Did you miss the Ravens’ comeback win over the Steelers on Nov. 6? Don’t worry. During a 10-minute span on ESPN2’s “NFL 32” the following day, you could have seen Torrey Smith’s 26-yard game-winning touchdown catch 12 times.

ESPN puts its NFL highlight rights to work in two shows, “NFL Live” (top) and “NFL 32.”
Photo by: JOE FARAONI / ESPN (2)

Two hours earlier, on “NFL Live,” viewers saw Smith’s catch six times.

How about the Giants’ last-minute win over the Patriots? The two shows replayed Giants quarterback Eli Manning’s game-winning touchdown pass to tight end Jake Ballard 10 times on Monday.

For a panel of six SportsBusiness Journal/SportsBusiness Daily editorial staffers, it was all too much.

Six of us reviewed entire episodes of “NFL Live” (ESPN, 4 p.m. ET) and “NFL 32” (ESPN2, 6 p.m. ET) for a full week, Nov. 7-11. These are the two shows that were created from ESPN’s rights deal with the NFL. ESPN bumped “NFL Live” from 30 minutes to 60 minutes, and it created “NFL 32” as a new show on ESPN2.

After signing the deal, ESPN Executive Vice President John Skipper predicted that “NFL 32” would provide “a dramatic uptick in ratings from what we had there before. It’s a pretty insatiable demand for quality NFL product.”

TV ratings so far suggest a saturation point. During the week of our reviews, “NFL Live” averaged 677,000 viewers on ESPN; “NFL 32” averaged 236,000 viewers on ESPN2 — each about half of last year’s numbers in the time slot.

Overall, the SBJ/SBD panel felt that the quality of the two shows was mixed. Most preferred “NFL Live” to the more conversational “NFL 32.”

The panel’s main complaint was with the overall repetition of the programs. On Wednesday, an “NFL Live” panel, including analyst Mark Schlereth, spoke about the Penn State situation hours before coach Joe Paterno was fired. Two hours later, an “NFL 32” panel, again including Schlereth, made virtually the same comments. The only difference: Schlereth took off his sport coat while on “NFL 32.”

Several times, the two shows ran the exact same story. On Wednesday, “NFL Live” went to a taped feature in which Jon Gruden analyzed Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. Two hours later, “NFL 32” was running the same feature.

“Are the shows going for two different audiences, so they don’t think people are going to see them twice?” asked copy editor Betty Gomes. “Because I was watching both shows, I got impatient with that.”

I brought that complaint to Seth Markman, ESPN’s senior coordinating producer for NFL studio programming, who oversees both shows. He said ESPN programs the two shows for essentially the same audience but realizes that few viewers sit through both shows.

“I understand that most people see parts of one show or both shows,” he said. “The way audiences are, people flip around the TV. We want to make sure that people aren’t missing a good topic.”

For the SBJ/SBD panel, the shows worked best when ESPN’s reporters were on camera. TV Editor Paul Sanford said he found himself “just waiting for the [John] Claytons or the [Adam] Schefters” because they provided news.

The panel praised Chris Mortensen when he delivered a “Mort Report” segment on “NFL 32.” “Whenever that part came on, I listened a little bit closer because I was going to hear something I haven’t heard yet,” Gomes said.

But Mortensen has a new role as the show’s host, and the panel felt he was not effective and out of his comfort zone. The panel faulted him for failing to draw out panelists. On Wednesday’s show, for example, it felt like Kordell Stewart was invisible at times. It’s the host’s responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Suzy Kolber, who hosted the show twice during the week, was unanimously praised as an “NFL 32” host.

Meanwhile, none of the ex-jocks stood out for the panel. Neither did ex-coaches. Sometimes, opinions from former players felt irresponsible and needed balanced.

That was the case when Schlereth and Marcellus Wiley debated whether Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and Steelers defensive back Ryan Clark should have been fined for helmet-to-helmet hits.

Schlereth called the fines “absolutely ridiculous.” Wiley said they “make no sense.” Both talked with the passion of former players who do not like the NFL’s move to take those hits out of the game.

The show’s host, Trey Wingo, wrapped up the segment by meekly pointing out that the NFL’s crackdown on hits to the head is a “real bone of contention between the players and the league.”

That’s not enough. Wingo should have offered the NFL’s point of view on two clearly illegal hits or cited research on the effect concussions have on retired players. Wingo owed it to his viewers to offer another viewpoint in that instance.

The number of talking heads who actually played the game created way too much jock-speak on the shows.

On Monday’s “NFL 32,” former coach Eric Mangini asked Flacco to break down the Steelers defense on the game-winning play, getting this response: “I’m not sure if they were playing a quarter zone there or if they were playing a 2-man and the safety just got caught down eyeing up Anquan in the slot.” Later in that same show, when former player Jon Ritchie described the Eagles defense, he said, “They squeezed the wide nines in a little bit.”

Everyone on the panel likes football. Nobody was quite sure what Flacco or Ritchie was talking about.

Markman laughed when I brought up those criticisms. He doesn’t mind if coaches and analysts use coach-speak. He does mind if they use those terms without explaining what they mean.

“We tell coaches and analysts not to throw out terms like that without explaining them,” he said.

As for the amount of ex-jocks on the set, Markman offers no apologies. “Every bit of audience research that we’ve done shows that our viewers want people who have played the game,” he said.

The number of panelists on these shows — particularly a conversational show like “NFL 32” — also drew criticism from the SBJ/SBD panel.

“NFL 32” had six different analysts and three co-hosts alongside Mortensen for its four shows that week, which prevented it from gaining any rhythm.

“It seems like if you want to give a show an identity, you find people who are going to be really good on there and put them on there every day,” said Rob Knapp, an assistant managing editor.

But Markman is a proponent of a diversity of voices. “We felt a variety of opinions would be helpful on these shows,” Markman said. “The analysts are going to talk about the same story throughout the week. This is a way to keep it fresh.”

Generally, the SBJ/SBD panel did not have much of a problem with “NFL Live,” which is an extension of a show ESPN has been producing for years.

In general, most of the panelists were turned off by “NFL 32,” where the show’s concept felt forced, from the conversations to the ever-present fan tweets that cluttered up the screen.

Markman used the term “evolving” several times to describe “NFL 32.”

“We want it to be a good hour of football talk,” he said. “We’re still seeing what works and what doesn’t.”

Most of the panelists said they would not become regular viewers of these shows, mainly because of their late afternoon time slots. Clearly, ESPN is testing the limits of NFL fans’ appetite for football programming.

See SportsBusiness Daily for excerpts from the SBJ/SBD panel discussion of the shows.
John Ourand can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.

The SBJ/SBD Panel

Betty Gomes, copy editor
Austin Karp, assistant managing editor/
ratings and research
Rob Knapp, assistant managing editor
Brandon McClung, research associate
John Ourand, media reporter
Paul Sanford, television editor