ESPN Looks to Grow Past Sports Games and Highlights

It's a major problem of every successful niche cable network: Where do you grow from niche?

MTV had that problem, and succeeded in broadening its programming beyond music videos into series programming. Now ESPN is going through a similar transformation.

ESPN's solid stable of male viewers - both young and old - have made it perhaps the most successful cable network, with everything from the X Games to NFL to the NBA to, of course, it mothership of shows, "SportsCenter." Success comes with big advertising money and ESPN has more than any other cable network - almost $900 million a year.

But, as with any cable network business plan, ESPN needs to keep moving. ESPN has seemingly hit the saturation point among male viewers. To make up for this, ESPN has been scheduling sport-themed original movies and series over the past couple of seasons.

The goal is to gain a more diverse viewer base -- women viewers, all to naturally bring women-oriented advertisers, more pharmaceuticals, more consumer products brands, among others.



ESPN's recent series, "Tilt," a drama about the life around poker playing pros, gave a middling performance. Among its original movies, "3," about the life and times of NASCAR racing legend Dale Earnhardt, performed the best. Clinkers along the way included "Hustle," starring Tom Sizmore as Pete Rose.

The only real programming with any bite was an HBO-like series about the lives of NFL players, "Playmakers." But the NFL put the kibosh on this because executives hated that athletes were portrayed as drug users and wife beaters. ESPN was, no doubt, in a good and bad position. Critics were high on the show - but "Playmakers" had all the downside of a tough-themed FX series, which left it with a narrow list of advertisers to work with.

ESPN hasn't given up. There are 30 future movie projects in the works. It also hasn't given up on its bread and butter.

Come 2006, it'll have a little sports programming franchise called "Monday Night Football." "MNF" actually has the viewer profile the network has been looking for in a new series -- not only grabbing male viewers - but getting a healthy dose of primetime network women viewers.

ESPN doesn't seem to be cutting back on less traditional games and scores - that would be crazy. It just wants to steal away some advertising dollars from those entertainment driven networks such as TNT, Lifetime, FX, and USA.

Next story loading loading..