Much of the event felt familiar, but it was also the first upfront since president John Skipper abruptly resigned, his place taken by Jimmy Pitaro. Along with that management change, the company also reorganized and streamlined its sales efforts to account for changing viewer habits and ongoing erosion in full-day linear ratings. Reinforcing it all is what the company labels the “Disney difference,” with a promo reel at the end of the event highlighting titles not just on ESPN but across ABC and the movie studio.
“Before I took the job here, I was already a lifelong fan,” Pitaro told the crowd. “I had a personal relationship with this company for many years.” Today, he added, “no one has our unique combination of strengths. … ESPN is first, no matter how you measure it, but we’re not resting on our laurels. We’re at the beginning of the most exciting chapter in our story.”
A few athletes were sprinkled in as usual, but the stage was mostly occupied by studio hosts, live game broadcast crews and anchors, among them Scott Van Pelt, Katie Nolan and the trio from new morning show Get Up.
ESPN, maybe more than any traditional network, has experienced a supremely challenging decade, with subscriber numbers ebbing and linear ratings eroding for day-to-day fare as audiences have an array of digital options. With Disney CEO Bob Iger laser-focused on that challenge writ large, ESPN has rapidly moved toward digital, launching subscription service ESPN+ and promoting its content across social networks and re-thinking long-held assumptions.
Programming highlighted during the 90-minute presentation went long on human interest. Former NBA great Kobe Bryant took the stage to promote Detail, his show on ESPN+. Other shows getting prominent billing included Michael Jordan docu-series Last Dance, a co-venture with Netflix, and Basketball: A Love Story, an ESPN Films production which weaves together the personal reflections of 170 players, coaches and observers of the game. The segments will be pushed out as shorts across platforms and also aggregated into fuller-length episodes for linear airing.
“Everybody else at the upfronts is talking about 30- and 60-minute shows. And ESPN couldn’t be more different,” said Connor Schell, EVP of content. “Sports are everywhere, and they operate exactly as people consume media today — instant, short, long, longer, bingeing.”
Pitaro, a digital vet, ran through a few key points at the top of the show. His style and presence differed markedly frot that of Skipper, a lanky Southerner who often appeared to be speaking contemporaneously even while reading off the TelePromTer. Pitaro appeared more buttoned-up, but also spent nearly an hour after the show meeting with the media and addressing a wide range of topics in an open-ended forum.
SportsCenter vet Kenny Mayne reprised his annual five-minute set, which gives Jimmy Kimmel and Seth Meyers a run for their money in terms of comedy per second. Among the jokes he packed in were several jabs at NBCUniversal. Assembling a quintet of people for a mock-exercise class, after ditching a more relaxed yoga pose, he put them through their paces. “Breathe in, breathe out. No seriously, keep breathing,” he said. “Fewer ads for 70% more money is a good thing … NBC said. Now run in place. Run fast. Now faster. Faster! This is how fast NBC is running from that statement. If things go bad for me here, I have no problem with NBC. We’re cool. That joke came from way up top.”
Along with the gags, there were several remarks throughout the show about larger upfront themes like reduced ad loads and innovation designed to improve the ad experience for buyers and viewers.
SVP of sales and marketing Wendell Scott took the stage to make the case for SportsCenter as an ad vehicle. While the show’s live, linear ratings have compressed in the aggregate in recent years, Scott said it racks up 3 million viewers a day across platforms and is the No. 1 social TV show.
“There’s been a lot of bluster out there about the reduction of advertising in prime,” he said. “It’s a problem created by the same people who say they can fix it. If you want to talk attention, look no further than ESPN.” Given the way live sports programming is viewed, the network has little use for delayed viewing metrics like C-3 or C-7. “Within 5 minutes, 98% of our audience sees your message. Who else has C-5 minutes?”