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ESPN’s VP Digital Production Mike Foss On The Launch Of Debatable And The Future of Digital Studio Shows

ESPN recently debuted Debatable – a daily, multi-sport, digital-exclusive studio show – across Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the ESPN App. The innovative series, produced by Rydholm Projects, Inc., is led by a rotating team of signature voices that carry the spirit of Highly Questionable into Debatable and take on the most compelling topics from around the sports world with even greater depth and digression. 

Debatable, which debuts a new episode today at 12:30 p.m. ET, adds to an expansive library of digital-only content with shows that have traditionally surrounded signature games and championship events. ESPN continues to be a leader in the space, with digital video content expected to surpass one billion minutes watched and 310 million views by the end of 2021. Vice President, Digital Production, Mike Foss, talks about the approach and the future of digital studio shows. 

Why the digital-exclusive approach?

It was a great opportunity to bring two creative teams in ESPN’s Digital Production group and Rydholm Projects into a rapidly evolving and important part of our audience expansion efforts. We have seen tremendous growth in our digital live show business and audience over the past three years, and this was a unique opportunity to differentiate our portfolio with Debatable. 

How is this different from what we’ve done so far with other digital shows?

In 2021, we will produce over 300 digital shows across YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and the ESPN App. Most of these shows are pre-game, leading into priority ESPN broadcasts on linear. The big exceptions are Fantasy Focus, which runs Monday-Friday during football season, and Bet, which streams three days each week. The differentiator between Debatable and our other programming is it is a standalone multi-sport show, whereas everything else we’ve done has a subject-specific hook, or tie into a linear event.  

What are you most looking forward to about Debatable?

The chemistry.  

My favorite part of our shows is they’re all live. My second favorite part is there are no commercial breaks. Without taping or breaks, you get to see organic relationships develop on the fly. Even people who have done TV together for years show a different side of themselves in this environment because there’s a new freedom in the format.   

What have you seen work best on digital-exclusive shows?

There are many people internally who have helped shape ESPN’s voice when it comes to digital-exclusive shows. I think when you look at our output in comparison to other entities, there is a balance between best-in-class production and authentic interaction within content that no one else has been able to replicate. On camera it appears effortless and organic, but it’s the result of a lot of hard work and iteration.

Take Countdown to GameDay, for example. That show is excellent, and Christine Williamson and Harry Lyles have a blast playing off each other, the GameDay staff, and the fans. It’s this intimate look at everything leading up to College GameDay and as a viewer you get swept up in the atmosphere. What you don’t see is the host of technical, operational and production people who have bought in on making a pre-game show for a pre-game show. I think ESPN is the only place where a show like that could be as good as it is. 

How do we collaborate with our partners at Twitter, Facebook and YouTube on a show like this?

We have great relationships with each of these partners and any time we begin putting a new show together, we use the insights and research they provide in the development phase. Once a show launches, we track performance internally and also gather partner insights as well. I don’t believe a show is ever “finished” – we can’t afford to be stagnant, and our relationships with individual platforms help us iterate and grow.  


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