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SEC Network Looks Back As It Gears Up for Kickoff

On the eve of SEC football’s return, SEC Network VP Chris Turner looks back at the months without live sports and how the network responded

As SEC Network readies to kick off its seventh SEC football season on Saturday, Front Row visited with SEC Network’s Vice President of Programming & Acquisitions, Chris Turner, to look back at the months without live sports due to the pandemic and how SEC Network responded and innovated.

Nearly 25 years into his tenure at ESPN, Turner has worked closely with the conference since 2009 and was an integral part of the network’s launch.

SEC Network had six months without live sports until soccer returned last weekend, and the network’s first Saturday of college football kicks off tomorrow. Now that we’re here, what have you learned about SEC Network and its viewers in the absence of live sports?
Turner: We are definitely glad to have live sports back. While it is certainly no surprise, the past six months have only confirmed that SEC fans and the viewers of our network are incredibly passionate. Their fandom has not waned. We are no strangers to having a lull in the schedule with no live events. That is an annual occurrence every summer. This time around, however, it came so suddenly and without warning that it left fans craving interaction with their teams and schools.

Chris Turner speaks to SEC Network employees during a function celebrating its fifth anniversary in 2019.
(James Dockery/ESPN)

Viewer feedback has not ceased, and even during the long run of taped programming and re-airs, viewers were ‘suggesting’ that we show more of this or less of that. Thank goodness for their passion. Without them, the network wouldn’t be as successful as we have been.

Now that we’re here, on what people have been calling ‘Christmas Eve’ before football starts tomorrow, SEC Network is looking at a full slate of studio and original programming, a full day of football on Saturday, and the debut of two new shows this weekend. This time hasn’t slowed us down one bit.

The pandemic stopped live sports during the SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament in Nashville. Tell us about that day and the days following for your team. How did you have to adjust on the fly?
Turner: We went from preparing for a full day of men’s basketball tournament action to a full stop. Our studio team remained on the air from Nashville to cover the news of the moment and get reactions. In moments like that, I think it is important to draw upon your experience to guide your next move. That is exactly what we did. Having programmed summer takeovers since the network launch, we felt we could buy ourselves time by going to a 14-day school takeover. Once that was complete, we then had time to assess and plan for the longer run that was to come.

The creativity shown by the entire team has been fantastic. Programming, Production, Marketing, Sales, Social … Everyone has done great work through creative problem solving and innovation. I am very proud of the entire team.
– SEC Network VP of Programming & Acquisitions, Chris Turner

Creativity has been paramount during the past six months. How has your team had to innovate to program the network?
Turner: The creativity shown by the entire team has been fantastic. Programming, Production, Marketing, Sales, Social … Everyone has done great work through creative problem solving and innovation. I am very proud of the entire team. For the Programming team specifically, we have worked hard to make re-airs and taped programming feel fresh. Maintaining our connection with the fans has been key, and we’ve used our digital assets to do just that. For example, being able to continue our studio programming from home and entering the digital and social space with our shows was crucial. The production team pivoted so quickly and were the first to really dive into the question of ‘how do we serve our fans from home?’ The content they created proved how versatile and nimble our network is.

. . . We should come out the other side of this learning how to do things differently. More efficiently. – Turner

The programming department works so closely with so many different teams throughout the company. Looking back on the past six months, is there anything you’ll take with you from a strategy and/or workflow perspective moving forward?
Turner: I was on a Zoom call early on where new technologies were being discussed that would enable us to produce and edit content from home. I commented then that if nothing else, we should come out the other side of this learning how to do things differently. More efficiently. I think we see that playing out even more now with announcers from home and the expansion of our school production initiative. In short order, we have become accustomed to seeing people in their homes giving interviews. While it is always nice to have everyone sitting around the same desk, we can accomplish our goals without it.

Your team has put together marathons, takeovers, programming stunts and more. Do you have a favorite piece of programming or stunt from the past six months?
Turner: I have really enjoyed watching some of the old Storied films. That franchise dates back to before the SEC Network and watching them has been a reminder of how far we have come with our SEC relationship. I started working with the league in 2009 and was part of the creation and launch of SEC Network. My hope is that everyone has had an opportunity to reflect on all of the good work we have done and continue to do to highlight the achievements of the student-athletes, promote the conference and serve our fans.

SEC Network’s studios are primed and ready for the first weekend of SEC football.
(James Dockery/ESPN)
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