If you were born after 1983, you might be surprised to learn ESPN was not always “The Total Sports Network.”
Not long after programming went 24 hours on ESPN, the network debuted a weekday morning business and financial news program called Business Times on ESPN.
The concept was pure ESPN: Give busy executives the most comprehensive, fast-paced, reliable, up-to-the-second business news service available on any medium.
ESPN’s entry into the morning news business 30 years ago today (March 1, 1983), was significant for a number of reasons. The mixing of business news and sports was a bold play in the TV landscape of 1983. It was a move watched closely by the television industry because it marked a departure from a cable philosophy of segmented viewing — i.e. all sports, food, religion, music, health, children’s programming, etc.
Not only was it a break from the 24/7 sports format, but it also served as a new competitor for the morning news shows. ESPN, a subsidiary of Getty Oil at the time, had a very business-oriented game plan: Stop losing money.
The network was losing considerable money and the change in format was an effort to not only attract non-sports fans to ESPN, but to help boost advertising revenue and to recoup millions of dollars lost during the network’s first three years of operation.
“Launching Business Times was driven by necessity more than daring,” said then-ESPN President, Bill Grimes. “We were running in the red then, which meant that at the end of every month, Getty was writing a check and sending it to Bristol to fund the operations because the revenue we were generating wasn’t [covering operations].
“My sense was that Getty was getting concerned,” he said. “I was getting questions like, ‘Bill, when are you guys going to make a profit?'”
Modeled after corporate presidential briefings, Business Times offered executives an early day update when they needed it the most, first thing in the morning (6 a.m. ET with a re-air at 7 a.m.), before the start of the business day. The show, originating from New York City, provided a mix of world, national, economic and financial news headlines of the day, as well as profiles of business leaders, political news, technology, banking and, of course, scores and highlights.
James “Denny” Crimmins, editor-in-chief of the new program, assembled the largest editorial business staff in television, which included 20 reporters,
editors and correspondents from established publications such as Newsweek, BusinessWeek, U.S. News & World Report and The Economist.
“The show had slightly disappointing audience numbers,” said Grimes. “It sold some advertising, but in the end it did not generate sufficient money to provide much comfort for Crimmins and his investors to keep the show going.”
So, after two years, four months, 605 shows and a CableACE Award, Business Times ceased operation.
“Thirty years ago, ESPN was nothing in terms of what it is today,” Grimes said. “We were looking constantly for every possible way that we could to boost awareness, attract more advertisers and bring in more viewers. So in my view, Business Times was a good decision.”
That same year, ESPN launched another business news and information show, Nation’s Business Today, produced by the American Business Network, the broadcasting arm of the United States Chamber of Commerce.
On Sept. 30, 1991, ESPN returned to an all-sports format when ESPN replaced Nation’s Business Today with re-airs of SportsCenter.
And that was a business move that truly paid off.