EDITOR’S NOTE: As ESPN continues to navigate our ever-changing environment, Executive Vice President, Programming, Burke Magnus spoke to Front Row about his team’s objectives and strategies.
Can you discuss the philosophy behind establishing ESPN’s prime-time schedule?
What we are attempting to do is to provide a spinal column of sorts for the ESPN schedule in a horizontal fashion, meaning Monday through Sunday. We want a typical week to have a reliable set of themed programming that attaches to particular leagues or sports and gives fans a structure by which they can rely on for top archival content. Where we landed was pretty simple – Monday night tied to Monday Night Football; Wednesday is one of our traditional NBA nights; Thursday has long been a college football night for us; while Friday night at the movies and Saturday fight night both sounded right. You add a terrific MLB block on Tuesday and The Last Dance on upcoming Sundays and you quickly have the makings of a strong lineup of memorable sports moments that can help address the desires of fans who miss those sports.
Will you continue to connect programming with canceled/postponed events that would have happened on those dates, thereby making planned exceptions to the nightly sports windows you established?
While the theme nights provide structure, we are not going to hesitate to break from that construct when there is a special opportunity or when the moment demands it. Thursday and Friday for example, during what would have been Masters week, we will abandon the theme night structure and present some of most iconic Masters Final Rounds in primetime. Another example is Friday, April 17 when we will present an entire night of WNBA — highlighted by the live “virtual” WNBA Draft, and followed by an encore presentation of the clinching Game 5 from last year’s WNBA Finals. There are other examples where we will break the nightly mold, including the NFL Draft later this month. Just like we did with both the Home Run Derby and “Strikeout Saturday” stunts in celebration of what would have been MLB’s Opening Day, this approach serves fans who may be longing for a particular league, sport or event that’s unfortunately not happening.
Can you describe the process and strategy of moving up The Last Dance to April 19, including consumer demand?
It goes without saying that our company is filled with sports fans. Obviously, we pay close attention to demand, including through social media, and we were thinking the exact same thing the fans were about The Last Dance from the moment we started to see mass cancellations to events and seasons. We were always hoping we could move this up and through the hard work of our internal ESPN Films team, the director and our production partners – we are now thrilled to be able to debut the series significantly earlier than originally planned. The fans’ voice was heard, and we are excited about what will be a special event on April 19 and for the weeks that follow with this incredible project that viewers will undoubtedly love.
Are there any potential live event considerations that can supplement ESPN’s current live daily studio programming?
Through all the change and uncertainty, safety and health remain the focus. If and when health officials and experts determine that specific live competitions can be safely staged for all, we will explore any opportunities in that space, given how live events are such a driver of sports programming. Along those lines, one thing we could consider is live game content from international leagues or events that potentially could resume a bit earlier than the time frame we are seeing in the U.S. We are positioning ourselves to be ready — whether it’s soccer, basketball, baseball, rugby or anything else. There is clearly a thirst for live games and it may provide a unique opportunity to introduce fans to events or leagues that may not have had as much exposure here.
How do you view the NFL Draft from a programming perspective?
As our coverage of NFL Free Agency recently demonstrated, fans have an enormous appetite for NFL news. We are entering the window of time when there will be the usual heightened speculation, debate and interest leading into the NFL Draft, concerning what teams may do. When you account for that Draft lead-up programming and the NFL Draft itself, and combine that with the WNBA Draft and The Last Dance five-week flight, fans can look forward to what will amount to an interesting stretch of intriguing live and/or original content.
Fans appreciate all that we’ve been doing and it’s breaking through in meaningful ways. Several initiatives have resonated with viewers, including UFC content and the encore WrestleMania events we recently acquired. – Burke Magnus
What has been the audience response to recent ESPN programming?
There is simply no appropriate comparison to what we are all currently going through – both at ESPN and those who consume ESPN. As a result, we rely on our strong relationship with sports fans and look to build upon that every day through creative, distinctive programming. When we talk about fan relationships, clearly that is measured in ways that go well beyond ratings. Fans appreciate all that we’ve been doing and it’s breaking through in meaningful ways. Several initiatives have resonated with viewers, including UFC content and the encore WrestleMania events we recently acquired. We have also seen a trend toward increased co-viewing in households, which influenced our decisions to bring back “The Ocho” and our partnership with Disney+ to feature inspiring sports films. Along the way, many of our flagship studio series, including SportsCenter, Get Up and First Take have kept fans thoroughly informed through outstanding, in-the-moment news coverage and commentary across multiple sports categories. Between our overall daily programming efforts and our decision to move up The Last Dance, the positive sentiment for ESPN’s brand is very high.
What has been the back-and-forth between ESPN and league/event rightsholders as seasons and events have been altered, postponed or cancelled?
In terms of season-long programming, we know leagues are hard at work either attempting to resume a season or create a structure to preserve as much of the season as possible. For standalone events, some are cancelled for 2020, while others intend to reschedule if at all possible. All of that means that every situation is unique, and on top of that, every single property has a strong yet distinct relationship with ESPN. We have been in contact with all of our partners, and as you would expect, those differing conversations fit the particulars of our specific relationship and the individual situation they find themselves in. One common thread is that leagues share our interest in keeping their sports top of mind with fans, so our conversations have been focused on doing just that.
In simple terms, how would you describe your main programming objective in this moment?
As a programming team, we are all sports fans and just like our wonderful marketing spot says, “We miss it, too.” For me personally, I want to see the Yankees play. I will miss not seeing Serena and Fed compete at Wimbledon. I need to know who will win the NBA Finals or wear the green jacket. The list goes on and on. We are focused on working hard day-to-day to bring fans the very best sports content available in these unprecedented times.