US sports broadcaster ESPN has given the first details of its plans for a dedicated UK channel, already a very different beast to Setanta, writes Julian Clover.
The football season, like flat racing, is something that never seems to end. The closed season transfer talk has, perhaps unexpectedly, been about where next season’s football matches will be shown as much as which Scrabble-named footballer is being signed for the Premier League.
ESPN will now pick up the two packages of live Premier League matches – 46 in all for the first year – helping the channel that has been associated with multichannel television in Europe for more than 20 years finally put his own name above the shop. It was a shareholder in the old Screensport, before the venture merged into Eurosport, and later returned with ESPN Classic and the ESPN America channel that will continue across continental Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
As if to illustrate the power of the ESPN-brand, the America channel has begun to creep into European bars and airport lounges in the way that it never did under its former NASN moniker. As one of the big US television brands, it has a familiarity outside of the immediate industry, and is recognisable by the public in the same as CNN, MTV or Discovery Channel.
So far ESPN’s approach has been very different to that of Setanta, now restricted to Ireland and North America. A key difference will be the availability of an HD channel. It was one of Setanta’s complaints against Sky that it was unwilling to support the launch of HD on the satellite platform, though given the closeness of its relationship with Virgin Media it was surprising that the cablenet wasn’t used for an exclusive launch.
ESPN’s approach to Sky has also been markedly different, regarding its principal distributor as a partner, rather than the enemy. ESPN will use Sky for the production of its football coverage and its sales house to sell commercial airtime.
Then there is the subtle approach to content, it was easy to lose count of the number of channels that Setanta owned or operated, but ESPN appears to be gently easing in its new prize into its existing portfolio.
The premise of a channel that runs live European sports in the day and early evening, before giving way to US sports in the late evening is sound enough, and who is to say that the portfolio might be allowed to grow a little further. ESPN Star Sports, its Asian joint venture with News Corp, is the host broadcaster for cricket’s governing body the ICC and who is to say it may want to have direct access to events such as the Twenty20 World Cup for itself.
Curiously it has been Eurosport that has benefitted from the sports that have unexpectedly become available in the past few weeks. British Eurosport has the remainder of the 2009 US PGA Tour, the golfing event that was able to fill considerable airtime on Setanta. But with such short term deals being made by the rights holders it is clear that the Setanta fallout has a little way to go.