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ESPN-HD Prepares For Historic Launch

On March 30, 2003, all-sports cable TV network ESPN will make history with its first baseball game — between the California Angels and Texas Rangers — in 720p HDTV format on its new 24-hour HDTV channel.

In the first year, the new service, which is dubbed “ESPN-HD,” is scheduled to offer 100 live game telecasts from Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Basketball Association (NBA), the National Football League (NFL) and the National Hockey League (NHL).

The channel is also slated to offer HD telecasts of a variety of ESPN original programs, including the X Games, the Great Outdoors Games, the ESPY Awards, the Women’s NCAA Basketball Final Four and the ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament. Most studio shows, such as ESPN’s SportsCenter, will go HDTV in 2004.

The following is a question and answer interview conducted with Bryan Burns, ESPN strategic business planning and development VP, at TWICE’s offices in late February.

TWICE: Why did you decide to launch HDTV now?

Burns: We think we have the ability to raise the overall awareness of high-definition television, and the awareness of ESPN.

We think the ESPN brand can help our customers move HD along in the process better than other brands. We have an opportunity to help our customers and ourselves as well. We had to do this. It was never, for us, a matter of if we were going to do this, but when.

TWICE: How will you produce the games you cover in HD?

Burns: To start we will use three HDTV production trucks owned by three companies — NEP, NMT and NCP. We approached these three companies with our idea, and they said they would do the games if we agreed to sign multi-year, multi-event contracts, and that’s how it evolved. ABC will use some of the same trucks. For example, they will use the NMT truck to do Monday Night Football, which is going to prevent us from using that truck for months.

TWICE: How have the cable and satellite operators responded to your plan?

Burns: We went to the national cable show a year ago and asked our customers if they wanted ESPN to do high-def. The answer was “Yes we do.” We then asked them if they wanted us to deliver HD for some special events or run it all of the time, and they told us, like in the Ronco commercial — “We want to set it and forget it. We don’t want to have to go to the head-end and twist the dials every time you guys do a basketball game in high-def.”

We made the decision then to come out of the box in the first year with up converted ESPN, and to do the events we can in high-def with the trucks natively. Once the digital center is operational and we’ve added some more trucks, almost half the 24/7 broadcast day will be in high-definition. The first year will be the on-ramp, since you have to start somewhere.

TWICE: Where do you go from there?

ESPN: We are building a 120,000-square-foot digital center in our Bristol, Conn., facility. The building is built, heated and cooled, but it is currently empty. We now head to the NAB convention to buy everything we are going to need to fill it up. We think, that at least for some period of time, it will be the largest HDTV production facility in the world.

About a year from now, when that all comes together, ESPN-HD will blossom, because when we go there we expect to have 3,700 hours a year of natively produced programming, including our ESPN SportsCenter program, in high-def. We think that is huge.

TWICE: As this went to press, we still had not seen a carriage announcement. Are you finding resistance to take the service?

Burns: We will have a number of announcements to make as we get close to launch. I think cable operators are very motivated to do this. I haven’t seen any lack of desire. We all have to figure out the economics — from their standpoint what its costs to build and rebuild, and from our standpoint what it costs to build and produce.

TWICE: What are the chances that we will see you on a satellite TV system this year?

Burns: I’m very optimistic about that.

TWICE: What size audience do you expect when you throw the switch on March 30?

Burns: I think it’s fair to say this will not be a massive at-launch situation. I don’t think HDTV is massive at this point. So I think the launch of ESPN-HD will mirror where that market is.

But, I think that once we launch, we are going to move the whole [DTV adoption] process along.

TWICE: How will you do that?

Burns: Using our media vehicles will help move the DTV transition along by exposing the public to what HDTV is and what it isn’t.

A big part of the cable operator’s business is to sell local time.

We see a great opportunity that hasn’t been tapped yet for the on-air promotion of high-definition television in general and ESPN-HD in specific. Instead of putting a swipe on at the beginning of a show saying “this program is brought to you by Mitsubishi,” we plan to blow the lid off of that.

We will put an HDTV set in the booth with an announcer like Joe Morgan or John Miller of “Sunday Night Baseball” and have them turn to the set during the show and talk about it — “Tonight’s show is on ESPN-HD. If you had a set like this you would see this.”

TWICE: How will you work with consumer electronics retailers and manufacturers to get the HDTV message to the public?

Burns: There is clearly a beautiful marriage to be made between the cable operator, the regional retailer and us. A lot of local ad time gets bought and sold in our networks at the local level. If The Good Guys, for example, works with Adelphia and buys time from Adelphia, they can promote themselves in their ad time as the “Southern California HD leader” with the tag line “come in and see a Mitsubishi HDTV.”

They then get co-op money back from Mitsubishi. Adelphia makes the decision to take ESPN-HD and run it 24 hours a day, and the Good Guys takes the feed and uses it to demonstrate their HDTVs on the selling floor. That triangle becomes very important. In essence you have a 24/7 pallet — cable TV — on which to show HDTV in regional stores. With DirecTV and EchoStar you have the same thing on a national level.

TWICE: Will you charge your cable MSOs extra to carry ESPN-HD?

Burns: We are proposing to offer what we call a technical service to our affiliates. This is not an inexpensive operation we are running, so we would require a technical service fee from our affiliates [cable operators] to carry ESPN-HD. What we expect will result — and this will vary by operator — is the cable operator will assemble some sort of programming tier, where they would package together a number of HD channels.

TWICE: How do you think those cable operators, who don’t currently charge extra for their HDTV services, will handle this?

Burns: I think it is inevitable that they will eventually have to charge for this. But we have seen different strategies, and all of our customers have different ideas about how to do this.