TV Upfronts: ESPN Chief Talks Olbermann, Tebow and CBS' Thursday Night Football Play

Matt Salacuse
John Skipper

"We gave [Tebow] a lot of attention. We probably overdid it," admitted ESPN president John Skipper. "And that makes people suspicious of him. It's not his fault. He is genuinely a very likable guy."

Last year at the ESPN upfront there was much talk of the impending competition from Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2, the spinoff cable sports networks launched last August. This year, the focus was once again on ESPN's position as the cable sports leader. And if ESPN president John Skipper acknowledged that there was definitely some retrenchment – "We took it seriously; we launched some new shows, we bought some new rights," he told reporters after the Tuesday morning presentation – it's safe to say that ESPN and ESPN2 have successfully maintained their positions as the No. 1- and No. 2-ranked cable sports destinations.

"We think we're quite successful at maintaining our position with fans," noted Skipper.

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The presentation at Broadway's Minskoff Theatre, home of the long-running Lion King, included appearances from a plethora of ESPN talent including Stephen A. Smith, Skip Bayless, Scott Van Pelt, Kenny Mayne, Michelle Beadle and Keith Olbermann. And, as usual, there was also a smattering of athletes including Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony and New York Mets pitcher Matt Harvey (scheduled to make his return next month after being sidelined by Tommy John surgery). 

The recent Los Angeles Clippers controversy and the network's coverage of gay athletes including Jason Collins and Michael Sam featured prominently in an opening video for the hour-plus presentation, which was designed to emphasize ESPN's position as a chronicler of not just games but the inherent human drama of sports in America. It is an approach that Skipper -- a North Carolina native who came up through the publishing arm of Disney -- has particularly stressed. 

Skipper also touched on CBS' entree into NFL primetime coverage with Thursday Night Football, the soon-to-launch SEC Network and how he thinks Keith Olbermann's second tenure at ESPN is going. 

About that competition from FS1 and FS2

Skipper has taken the two new sports competitors seriously. And while he vowed on Tuesday not to say anything "snarky" about the competition, he did allow that studio shows aside, cable sports networks live and die on the games. "The live rights are pretty paramount," he said. "And it is pretty close to impossible to launch studio shows without lead-ins. I think our new competitors are learning that."

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CBS' Thursday Night Football play

CBS is ramping up to launch eight Thursday night games in September (simulcast on the NFL Network). And sports presentations at NBC and Fox upfronts yesterday placed significant focus on their (stronger) schedule of matchups. Likewise, Skipper believes that the Monday Night Football schedule is better than what ESPN had last year and predicted that ratings will be up for the 2014-15 season. The 17 regular-season MNF games averaged almost 14 million viewers a week on ESPN last season. The NFL Network's Thursday night games were the least watched, pulling in an average of 8 million viewers over 13 games.

Asked how he thinks CBS will do, he allowed: "The Thursday schedule on CBS is better than the eight games that the NFL Network had last year. I think [the games will] be up from what the ratings were on NFL Network. I do think more people will watch it on CBS and not the NFL Network. So I don't think the simulcast will be particularly meaningful."

Big gap in a would-be ESPN Olympics bid

ESPN executives -- like many others in the sports world -- were caught off guard by NBC Sports' preemptive $7.75 billion six-Games Olympics renewal, announced last week. "It was a surprise," said Skipper. "We were not contacted."

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But he admitted that the deal, which keeps the Games at NBC through 2032, is a win for the network and the International Olympic Committee. And he said had the games been open to competitive bidding, ESPN would have been interested in an Olympics package -- up to a point. 

"I think the IOC understood that NBC valued the rights the most," laughed Skipper. "We were interested in the Olympics before. But there would have been a gap between our bid and their bid." 

Securing distribution for SEC Network

Underpinning the upcoming SEC Network, which is set to launch Aug. 14 with the start of the college football season, is an extended rights deal with the Southeastern Conference that keeps the games at ESPN through 2034. (The conference includes many top ratings-drawing college teams including Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Texas A&M.) So far, ESPN has carriage deals with AT&T U-verse and Dish Network and is in overall negotiations with DirecTV. The company is reportedly asking for a steep $1.30 per sub fee in SEC markets and 25 cents in non-SEC markets. (Comparatively, the Big Ten Network charges approximately $1 per sub in Big Ten markets.) But Skipper is "hopeful" that the SEC Network will achieve something close to full distribution. And he noted that ESPN's leverage will only increase as the season begins.

"We have 45 football games. We start with Texas A&M at South Carolina. Those games down there do [household ratings] in the 20s and 30s," he said. "When they start playing football, it will be a very valuable property."

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Keith Olbermann's future at ESPN

Skipper is fully aware that his decision to bring Olbermann back to ESPN to host an 11 p.m. program on ESPN2 was controversial -- outside and perhaps especially inside ESPN. But he's committed to growing Olbermann (which recently had a run on the more highly rated ESPN and may get another one). And he sees more upside in the show with some minor tweaking. "I'm very pleased with where it is," he said, "but I'm not satisfied. I think we've got to look at what Olbermann 2.0 is, think about other elements and how we can make his show different from night to night.

"We wanted to bring Keith back. He's a unique personality and a unique talent," he continued. "We wanted to be competitive at 11 o'clock and have the clear No. 1 show [in ESPN's SportsCenter] and the clear No. 2 show. That happened. We have a lot of patience with our shows. It took [Pardon the Interruption] a long time to hit. Other than those Sunday morning countdown shows, people don't view sports studio shows as appointment viewing. So we've got to over time build the audience. And that's what we're going to do with it."

Olbermann made an appearance at the ESPN upfront and he'll likely be seen on more ESPN shows. And Skipper added that Olbermann, whose show broadcasts from Times Square Studios in Manhattan, "has been on his very best behavior. You saw him here today. He's been great."

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The education of Tim Tebow

The former NFL quarterback also was something of a controversial choice for ESPN, if only because of the network's incessant coverage of him when he was playing. His passionate following made him ratings bate, the thinking at ESPN went.

"We gave him a lot of attention. I've said before, we probably overdid it," admitted Skipper. "And that makes people sort of suspicious of him. It's not his fault. He is genuinely a very likable guy."

Tebow -- who joined ESPN earlier this year as an analyst for SEC Nation, which migrates to the SEC Network when it launches in August -- has surprised many, as he's quickly grown into the analyst job. "We have been thrilled," continued Skipper, singling out Tebow's commentary during last January's national title game between Florida State and Auburn. "We thought it might take him a little longer to get comfortable. He's very knowledgeable. It's beyond our expectations."

A big plus, added Skipper, "He's a very nice man. He says, 'Yes.' 'How did I do?' 'How can I get better?' and 'Thank you.' You can see why people like him."