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ESPN Offers Ops A Spanish Option

A Spanish-language feed of ESPN's Sunday-night Major League Baseball and National Football League telecasts has been made available free of charge to operators as part of a yearlong initiative.

The "ESPN Deportes" programming block will offer operators four to six hours of Spanish-language sports programming each Sunday on an à la carte basis, starting April 1, said ESPN Western division vice president of affiliate sales and marketing Steve Raymond. Operators can run the service for free on a separate channel.

The weekly programming block will feature a full season of Sunday Night Baseball
and Sunday Night Football
telecasts, exclusive boxing matches and a Spanish-language version of SportsCenter,
which will launch sometime in May.

There will be as many local advertising avails during the ESPN Deportes telecasts as there are during ESPN's standard Sunday-night programming.

Raymond said the network offered a scaled-down version of ESPN Deportes last year, featuring several MLB telecasts. Systems that represent about 8 million subscribers offered the service at that time. Among the MSOs that aired the programming last year: Adelphia Communications Corp., AT&T Broadband, Cablevision Systems Corp., Charter Communications Inc., Comcast Corp., Cox Communications and Time Warner Cable. Raymond hopes the 52-week package will gain carriage this year, although he stopped short of making penetration projections.

ESPN executives, however, denied that the service is a pre-emptive strike before announcing any possible licensing fee increases. As part of its current affiliation deal, ESPN can increase its licensing fees by up to 20 percent each year through 2006.

Given ESPN's strong appeal among Hispanic male viewers-the network is the No. 1 ad-supported basic service in that demographic-the Spanish-language service should face little problem generating an audience.

"There isn't a lot of sports programming targeted to Hispanic audiences," Raymond said.

Both MLB and NFL telecasts will feature new production and play-by-play crews. Baseball Max, a weekly magazine-style show with news, highlights and player profiles, will precede the live Sunday night game, Raymond said.

Raymond would not disclose how much the service would cost ESPN in production and uplink outlays.