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Volume 23 No. 18
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Postponements ‘unravel’ network programming

ESPN aired ‘SportsCenter’ throughout the first day without games.
Photo: ESPN Images
ESPN aired ‘SportsCenter’ throughout the first day without games.
Photo: ESPN Images
ESPN aired ‘SportsCenter’ throughout the first day without games.
Photo: ESPN Images

At 4:35 p.m. on Monday, March 16, a media PR executive emailed his channel’s programming plan for the week. Just 80 minutes later, that same executive followed up with a text: “That schedule I sent you is already changing.”

 

The moment underscored how unprepared sports media — all of sports business, in fact — was with the prospect of live sports shutting down in the United States.

Executives from the top sports TV networks did not want to speak on the record for fear that their comments would be dated and wrong within hours.

In an interview conducted with ESPN’s PR department and posted to ESPN’s Front Row website, Burke Magnus, executive vice president of acquisitions and scheduling, spoke of the chaos that resulted from leagues’ decisions to postpone their seasons.

“As those decisions were made, the downstream effects began to unravel the ESPN programming schedule across our networks, and we had to adjust accordingly,” Magnus said.

Many sports networks responded by immediately canceling opinion-based studio shows, decisions that had more to do with conforming to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention social distancing recommendations than a lack of content with no games.

NFL Network shelved its morning show, “Good Morning Football,” last week because it did not believe it could produce the show safely. Underscoring the uncertainty of the moment, that show could return at any time.

“I can’t stress enough that if we didn’t feel we had a safe environment, we simply wouldn’t produce the coverage,” said Alex Riethmiller, head of communications for the NFL’s media group. “The safety of our talent and staff is paramount.”

ESPN responded that first day by running “SportsCenter” throughout the day. ESPNews aired video simulcasts of ESPN radio shows and taped programming, while ESPN2 simulcast a combination of the two.

Over on FS1, Fox immediately went to replays of games and races that had aired previously. Fox and FS1 were able to carry some live programming, as WWE’s “SmackDown,” the Professional Bowlers Association and the New York Racing Association had live events.

Perspectives changed, seemingly by the hour, causing networks to release their programming schedules each day. Network sources said they have been able to plan and operate only in 24-hour windows for the past week.

At deadline, ESPN has kept its opinion-based studio shows off the air. Last week, Fox brought back two of its five, both produced remotely, away from the Fox lot.

NFL Network went with live programming last week as the league entered free agency. Operating with a 50-75% reduction in staff due to the virus outbreak, the shows did not have the same look and feel as shows NFL Network typically produces.

“We are spreading out talent across our campus, utilizing all our studio space, taking advantage of remotely controlled cameras, talent who have home cameras and juggling edit bays and control rooms while doing extensive cleaning in between shifts,” Riethmiller said. “We are constantly discovering various efficiencies on a daily basis that allow us to keep people at a safe distance from one another while continuing to cover all the news happening across the NFL.”