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Can ESPN Radio Push The Format Forward By Doing Less?

“Doing this under a microscope is why ESPN Radio is going to make waves.”

Demetri Ravanos

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If you have been in talk radio, be it news or sports, for any length of time, chances are you have done three hour shows and you have done four hour shows. Either one can be a grind, but I don’t have to tell you how big of a difference that single hour can make. It significantly changes the way you have to pace yourself, the way you build a show, and how you need the audience to interact.

Three and four hour shows have been the standard for so long that we usually assume there is something wrong with a host with a two hour show. Maybe he or she just isn’t very strong. Maybe the station is operating on a tight budget. Something’s gotta be off. JUST two hours?

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So much has been written about the changes coming to ESPN Radio in the morning that what is happening in mid days has largely flown under the radar. Sure, Dan Le Batard has sounded off about losing an hour of his show and Mike Greenberg has discussed what he wants to create in his return to radio, but no one has examined the Xs and Os. Why ESPN is changing its traditional 2 3-hour show mid day lineup to 3 2-hour shows?

It isn’t budgetary. ESPN has suffered financially during this Pandemic just like everyone else, but the names attached to these two-hour shows are some of the network’s biggest stars. They are already making good money.

It isn’t a lack of confidence. Le Batard may not have the biggest following in national radio, but he has one of the most loyal. The network trusted Greenberg in morning drive for 18 years. Even Max Kellerman, who has never had a daily show on the national network before, was successful in both New York and LA on the network’s local affiliates.

Dave Roberts didn’t say the reason outright in a recent interview with Michael McCarthy of Front Office Sports, but if you read between the lines in that interview, the reason ESPN Radio’s mid day lineup is going with more, shorter shows is clear. Most listeners aren’t going to consume a three hour show anyway, so let’s pack the same amount of entertainment into a shorter window. Give the people more killer and less filler.

“If you look at what’s going on in the audio space, the way audio is consumed today, in no way reflects how it was consumed, say, even five years ago,” Roberts told McCarthy. “It’s a whole new day in radio and audio consumption. The approach we took is to put ourselves in the best position so that we can be accessible on all audio platforms – no matter where people choose to listen.”

Dan Le Batard says he felt like losing an hour of his show was a demotion. His detractors were quick to respond with “because it is.” It is easy to think that way if you are still thinking about radio like it is 2002.

Entertainment, in all forms, in 2020 is all about being quick and accessible. It’s hard to imagine sports radio ever going the way of something like Quibi or TikTok, but losing two hours of show only available on broadcast radio in favor of a shorter broadcast show and a unique, regular podcast that is more personality driven, seems like a much better way to utilize talent in 2020.

In ESPN’s case, they are asking the three men that lead their three 2-hour shows to do a daily radio show and a daily TV show. Le Batard will also have a daily podcast. Kellerman is still hosting studio boxing coverage. ESPN is getting its money’s worth out of these talents without forcing them to be invested exclusively in radio.

On the local level, a change probably isn’t going to happen quickly. Even before Covid-19 took a bite out of the economy and virtually wiped out local radio advertising, stations weren’t operating in the same financial stratosphere as ESPN. Given how many local stations are affiliates of and take their cues from ESPN though, I wouldn’t be shocked if we are very close to seeing local stations hiring new hosts or reworking the deals of their current hosts to spend less time than they are used to on air and more time creating digital content.

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I am not saying broadcast radio isn’t what it used to be and digital platforms are the future. Lord knows we have all heard that enough, and are sick of having to argue that the numbers say broadcast radio isn’t dying. I am simply saying that you have to be in as many places as your are. That’s not advice. That is common sense.

A few weeks back I asked some program directors of ESPN affiliates to weigh in on the network’s new lineup. Virtually everyone I spoke with praised the shorter shows in mid days.

“I think it’s an interesting approach actually, and I’m very interested to see how it does. That is an idea that has piqued my curiosity for some time, just given how the audience behaves now,” said one PD.

“Honestly, the only reason radio stations run 3- and 4-hour shows is because of budget. Hosts cannot possibly throw fastballs for 4 hours. It’s not a realistic expectation,” added another.

Maybe drive times remain less flexible. That makes sense to me. But then again, maybe not.

A 2017 US Census Bureau study says the average daily commute is right around 26 minutes. If the drive is already that short and the average commuter tends to scan the dial at least once during that time anyway, why is it so important that the same show airing at 7:24 AM is airing at 8:01 AM?

Let me be very clear here. I am NOT saying that I necessarily agree with that. I am just asking if we are treating a habit as a sacred law when the only reason to do that seems to be “well, that’s just how we’ve always done it”?

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Building a schedule of two hour shows isn’t a novel approach to sports radio. 92.9 ESPN in Memphis has its two biggest names, Gary Parish and Geoff Calkins, each doing a two hour show. Sports Map Radio offers up almost exclusively two hour shows. This has been done, just never under the kind of microscope it will be at ESPN Radio.

Doing this under a microscope is why ESPN Radio is going to make waves. Sometimes the only thing that keeps this industry from innovating and moving forward is that decision makers need to see someone with more on the line than themselves go first. Well, after dropping Mike Golic Sr. and losing Stephen A. Smith earlier this year, who has more on the line than ESPN Radio?

BSM Writers

The Future Is Now, Embrace Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+

As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible.

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This week has been a reckoning for sports and its streaming future on Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+, ESPN+, and more.

Amazon announced that Thursday Night Football, which averaged 13 million viewers, generated the highest number of U.S. sign ups over a three hour period in the app’s history. More people in the United States subscribed to Prime during the September 15th broadcast than they did during Black Friday, Prime Day, and Cyber Monday. It was also “the most watched night of primetime in Prime Video’s history,” according to Amazon executive Jay Marine. The NFL and sports in general have the power to move mountains even for some of the nation’s biggest and most successful brands.

This leads us to the conversation happening surrounding Aaron Judge’s chase for history. Judge has been in pursuit of former major leaguer Roger Maris’ record for the most home runs hit during one season in American League history.

The sports world has turned its attention to the Yankees causing national rights holders such as ESPN, Fox, and TBS to pick up extra games in hopes that they capture the moment history is made. Apple TV+ also happened to have a Yankees game scheduled for Friday night against the Red Sox right in the middle of this chase for glory.

Baseball fans have been wildin’ out at the prospects of missing the grand moment when Judge passes Maris or even the moments afterwards as Judge chases home run number 70 and tries to truly create monumental history of his own. The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand has even reported there were talks between YES, MLB, and Apple to bring Michael Kay into Apple’s broadcast to call the game, allow YES Network to air its own production of the game, or allow YES Network to simulcast Apple TV+’s broadcast. In my opinion, all of this hysteria is extremely bogus.

As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible. Amazon brought in NBC to help with production of TNF and if you watch the flow of the broadcast, the graphics of the broadcast, NBC personalities like Michael Smith, Al Michaels, and Terry McAuliffe make appearances on the telecast – it is very clear that the network’s imprint is all over the show.

NBC’s experience in conducting the broadcast has made the viewing experience much more seamless. Apple has also used MLB Network and its personalities for assistance in ensuring there’s no major difference between what you see on air vs. what you’re streaming.

Amazon and Apple have also decided to not hide their games behind a paywall. Since the beginning of the season, all of Apple’s games have been available free of charge. No subscription has ever been required. As long as you have an Apple device and can download Apple TV+, you can watch their MLB package this season.

Guess what? Friday’s game against the Red Sox is also available for free on your iPhone, your laptop, or your TV simply by downloading the AppleTV app. Amazon will also simulcast all Thursday Night Football games on Twitch for free. It may be a little harder or confusing to find the free options, but they are out there and they are legal and, once again, they are free.

Apple has invested $85 million into baseball, money that will go towards your team becoming better hypothetically. They’ve invested money towards creating a new kind of streaming experience. Why in the hell would they offer YES Network this game for free? There’s no better way for them to drive subscriptions to their product than by offering fans a chance at watching history on their platform.

A moment like this are the main reason Apple paid for rights in the first place. When Apple sees what the NFL has done for Amazon in just one week and coincidentally has the ability to broadcast one of the biggest moments in baseball history – it would be a terrible business decision to let viewers watch it outside of the Apple ecosystem and lose the ability to gain new fans.

It’s time for sports fans to grow up and face reality. Streaming is here to stay. 

MLB Network is another option

If you don’t feel like going through the hassle of watching the Yankees take on the Red Sox for free on Apple TV+, MLB Network will also air all of Judge’s at bats live as they are happening. In case the moment doesn’t happen on Apple TV+ on Friday night, Judge’s next games will air in full on MLB Network (Saturday), ESPN (Sunday), MLB Network again (Monday), TBS (Tuesday) and MLB Network for a third time on Wednesday. All of MLB Network’s games will be simulcast of YES Network’s local New York broadcast. It wouldn’t shock me to see Fox pick up another game next Thursday if the pursuit still maintains national interest.

Quick bites

  • One of the weirdest things about the experience of streaming sports is that you lose the desire to channel surf. Is that a good thing or bad thing? Brandon Ross of LightShed Ventures wonders if the difficulty that comes with going from app to app will help Amazon keep viewers on TNF the entire time no matter what the score of the game is. If it does, Amazon needs to work on developing programming to surround the games or start replaying the games, pre and post shows so that when you fall asleep and wake up you’re still on the same stream on Prime Video or so that coming to Prime Video for sports becomes just as much of a habit for fans as tuning in to ESPN is.
  • CNN has announced the launch of a new morning show with Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlin Collins. Variety reports, “Two people familiar with plans for the show say it is likely to use big Warner Bros. properties — a visit from the cast of HBO’s Succession or sports analysis from TNT’s NBA crew — to lure eyeballs.” It’ll be interesting to see if Turner Sports becomes a cornerstone of this broadcast. Will the NBA start doing schedule releases during the show? Will a big Taylor Rooks interview debut on this show before it appears on B/R? Will the Stanley Cup or Final Four MVP do an interview on CNN’s show the morning after winning the title? Does the show do remote broadcasts from Turner’s biggest sports events throughout the year?
  • The Clippers are back on over the air television. They announced a deal with Nexstar to broadcast games on KTLA and other Nexstar owned affiliates in California. The team hasn’t reached a deal to air games on Bally Sports SoCal or Bally Sports Plus for the upcoming season. Could the Clippers pursue a solo route and start their own OTT service in time for the season? Are they talking to Apple, Amazon, or ESPN about a local streaming deal? Is Spectrum a possible destination? I think these are all possibilities but its likely that the Clippers end up back on Bally Sports since its the status quo. I just find it interesting that it has taken so long to solidify an agreement and that it wasn’t announced in conjunction with the KTLA deal. The Clippers are finally healthy this season, moving into a new arena soon, have the technology via Second Spectrum to produce immersive game casts. Maybe something is brewing?
  • ESPN’s Monday Night Football double box was a great concept. The execution sucked. Kudos to ESPN for adjusting on the fly once complaints began to lodge across social media. I think the double box works as a separate feed. ESPN2 should’ve been the home to the double box. SVP and Stanford Steve could’ve held a watch party from ESPN’s DC studio with special guests. The double box watch party on ESPN2 could’ve been interrupted whenever SVP was giving an update on games for ESPN and ABC. It would give ESPN2 a bit of a behind the scenes look at how the magic happens similarly to what MLB Tonight did last week. Credit to ESPN and the NFL for experimenting and continuing to try and give fans unique experiences.

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BSM Writers

ESPN Shows Foresight With Monday Night Football Doubleheader Timing

ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7 and then 10 on their primary channel.

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The Monday Night Football doubleheader was a little bit different this time around for ESPN.

First, it came in Week 2 instead of Week 1. And then, the games were staggered 75 minutes apart on two different channels, the Titans and Bills beginning on ESPN at 7:15 PM ET and the Vikings at the Eagles starting at 8:30 PM on ABC and ESPN+. This was a departure from the usual schedule in which the games kicked off at 7:00 PM ET and then 10:00 PM ET with the latter game on the West Coast.

ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7:00 PM and then 10:00 PM ET on their primary channel. That’s the typical approach, right? The NFL is the most valuable offering in all of sports and ESPN would have at least six consecutive hours of live programming without any other game to switch to.

Instead, they staggered the starts so the second game kicked off just before the first game reached halftime. They placed the games on two different channels, which risked cannibalizing their audience. Why? Well, it’s the same reason that ESPN was so excited about the last year’s Manningcast that it’s bringing it back for 10 weeks this season. ESPN is not just recognizing the reality of how their customers behave, but they’re embracing it.

Instead of hoping with everything they have that the customer stays in one place for the duration of the game, they’re recognizing the reality that they will leave and providing another product within their portfolio to be a destination when they do.

It’s the kind of experiment everyone in broadcasting should be investigating because, for all the talk about meeting the customer where they are, we still tend to be a little bit stubborn about adapting to what they do. 

Customers have more choices than ever when it comes to media consumption. First, cable networks softened the distribution advantages of broadcast networks, and now digital offerings have eroded the distribution advantages of cable networks. It’s not quite a free-for-all, but the battle for viewership is more intense, more wide open than ever because that viewer has so many options of not just when and where but how they will consume media.

Programmers have a choice in how to react to this. On the one hand, they can hold on tighter to the existing model and try to squeeze as much out of it as they can. If ESPN was thinking this way it would stack those two Monday night games one after the other just like it always has and hope like hell for a couple of close games to juice the ratings. Why would you make it impossible for your customer to watch both of these products you’ve paid so much to televise?

I’ve heard radio programmers and hosts recite take this same approach for more than 10 years now when it comes to making shows available on-demand. Why would you give your customers the option of consuming the product in a way that’s not as remunerative or in a way that is not measured?

That thinking is outdated and it is dangerous from an economic perspective because it means you’re trying to make the customer behave in your best interest by restricting their choices. And maybe that will work. Maybe they like that program enough that they’ll consume it in the way you’d prefer or maybe they decide that’s inconvenient or annoying or they decide to try something else and now this customer who would have listened to your product in an on-demand format is choosing to listen to someone else’s product entirely.

After all, you’re the only one that is restricting that customer’s choices because you’re the only one with a desire to keep your customer where he is. Everyone else is more than happy to give your customer something else. 

There’s a danger in holding on too tightly to the existing model because the tighter you squeeze, the more customers will slip through your fingers, and if you need a physical demonstration to complete this metaphor go grab a handful of sand and squeeze it hard.

Your business model is only as good as its ability to predict the behavior of your customers, and as soon as it stops doing that, you need to adjust that business model. Don’t just recognize the reality that customers today will exercise the freedom that all these media choices provide, embrace it.

Offer more products. Experiment with more ways to deliver those products. The more you attempt to dictate the terms of your customer’s engagement with your product, the more customers you’ll lose, and by accepting this you’ll open yourself to the reality that if your customer is going to leave your main offering, it’s better to have them hopping to another one of your products as opposed to leaving your network entirely.

Think in terms of depth of engagement, and breadth of experience. That’s clearly what ESPN is doing because conventional thinking would see the Manningcast as a program that competes with the main Monday Night Football broadcast, that cannibalizes it. ESPN sees it as a complimentary experience. An addition to the main broadcast, but it also has the benefit that if the customer feels compelled to jump away from the main broadcast – for whatever reason – it has another ESPN offering that they may land on.

I’ll be watching to see what ESPN decides going forward. The network will have three Monday Night Football doubleheaders beginning next year, and the game times have not been set. Will they line them up back-to-back as they had up until this year? If they do it will be a vote of confidence that its traditional programming approach that evening is still viable. But if they overlap those games going forward, it’s another sign that less is not more when it comes to giving your customers a choice in products.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: Sunday Ticket Has Problems, Marcellus Wiley Does Not

Demetri Ravanos

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On this episode of Media Noise, Demetri is joined by Brian Noe to talk about the wild year FS1’s Marcellus Wiley has had and by Garrett Searight to discuss the tumultuous present and bright future of NFL Sunday Ticket.

ITunes: https://buff.ly/3PjJWpO

Spotify: https://buff.ly/3AVwa90

iHeart: https://buff.ly/3cbINCp

Google: https://buff.ly/3PbgHWx

Amazon: https://buff.ly/3cbIOpX

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