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“The challenge is that now we need to replicate that dynamic 24 hours a day, seven days a week across multiple networks.”

In wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, ESPN EVP Burke Magnus discusses programming goals, working with rights holders

Toni Collins (L) and David Lloyd report from the SportsCenter set (Joe Faraoni/ESPN Images)

EDITOR’S NOTE: ESPN programming has had an enormous challenge the past week — filling the many holes that suddenly were in the company’s schedules. Executive Vice President, Programming, Burke Magnus spoke to Front Row and provides insights to the approach he and his team have been taking.

Strictly from an ESPN programming point of view, what’s your assessment of the past week?
Thursday, March 12, 2020 is a day none of us will soon forget. Coming off the NBA’s decision to suspend play the night before, so many leagues and properties had to make really challenging decisions about their seasons or events. As those decisions were made, the downstream effects began to unravel the ESPN programming schedule across our networks and we had to adjust accordingly.

Leading up to that Thursday, we had already established a programming task force that was tracking cancellations and postponements, yet on that day, our programming grids went from a handful of events or programs impacted to a significant amount of distinct programs, games, events or streams impacted.

Can you give people a sense of what the working environment was like for the programming team last Thursday?
We had an all-hands programming “war-room” environment in the big conference room on the third floor of ESPN’s Building 12. We had individual sport category programming teams relaying information as they were hearing it and also executing changes in real time, while the core content strategy group and our programming senior staff were making in-the-moment decisions.

Burke Magnus (Melissa Rawlins/ESPN Images)

We were also collaborating with colleagues in ESPN’s content and production areas to determine what was possible from a live studio perspective. By Friday, we began working from home for the foreseeable future, so we went from our most hectic on-site work environment one day, to relying on cell phone, email and text the next. While we were clearly concentrating on the work impact, we were simultaneously focused on the human impact, the personal impact as our teams were addressing all the critically important things happening in their own lives with schools closing and so much more.


What are the goals for the programming team now and going forward?

We have two simultaneous goals. One is the immediate future in terms of how we can be as relevant as possible through news and live studio programming in order to frame for sports fans the impact that these unprecedented circumstances are having on the sports world. Since this week coincidentally is the beginning of the NFL league calendar and free agency, we’ve built our schedules with an eye toward that being a major topic of conversation.

The second goal is aimed at looking ahead to entertain fans through fun, compelling archival content and/or themed and stunt event programming that will provide a diversion at a time that there are virtually no other live sports to watch.

This element speaks to both the experience we’ve had programming over the years and the ideas that people have been forwarding to us in recent days. There are so many creative things we can do, similar to some of the initiatives we’ve done in the past for special event anniversaries, “The Ocho” day and more.

The challenge is that now we need to replicate that dynamic 24 hours a day, seven days a week across multiple networks. That’s what is in front of us in terms of long-range planning.

Since we’ve heard from fans that would love to relive full-game presentations, particularly at this moment in time, we are exploring that possibility for events and content that we don’t have re-air rights already. – Burke Magnus

Can you explain in simple terms what rights you might or might not have to show re-airs of events from different leagues?
Re-airing full-game presentations is not a right that we or other media companies typically have at our disposal at all times. Each one of these circumstances requires individual conversations with the specific league or property to determine what’s possible.

Since we’ve heard from fans that would love to relive full-game presentations, particularly at this moment in time, we are exploring that possibility for events and content that we don’t have re-air rights already.

We are working with the leagues themselves to free up the possibility to show encore presentations and discussing how we can present them. In some instances, we aren’t even the original rightsholder, which is the case for the Men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament, for example. Event programming will continue to be supplemented by ESPN live studio and news programming, plus original shows and films.

In very difficult and challenging circumstances, our team has sincerely appreciated how leagues and properties have communicated with us as much as they possibly can about the decisions and complications they are facing. – Burke Magnus

What role does ESPN play in rights holders’ decisions to cancel, postpone or suspend events?
We don’t play any role in those specifics decisions and those complex considerations go well beyond the media distribution of their content. With that said, the lines of communication have been constantly open between ESPN and our league partners. In very difficult and challenging circumstances, our team has sincerely appreciated how leagues and properties have communicated with us as much as they possibly can about the decisions and complications they are facing.

Are any projects in the works that you are considering moving up the scheduled debut?
Overall, any original content project that we can conceivably move up, we are obviously considering that, including films. I know some have asked about The Last Dance and the reality is that the production of that film has not yet been completed, so we are limited there at the moment. Obviously, you can’t air it until it’s done.

SportsCenter set. (Joe Faraoni/ESPN Images)
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