Magnus Says ESPN Seeking Balance of News, Entertainment

Left in a lurch by the sudden cancellation of nearly all sports activity because of the coronavirus situation, one of ESPN’s top execs said the network is looking to balance news and entertainment as long as the crisis lasts.

In a question and answer session posted on the ESPN website, Burke Magnus, ESPN’s executive VP for programming acquisitions and scheduling, noted that the network does not automatically have the rights to re-televise old games.

And one piece of much-anticipated programming, The Last Dance, a multi-part documentary about Michael Jordan’s last championship season with the Chicago Bulls, is not ready to be televised.

"We have two simultaneous goals. One is the immediate future in terms of how we can be as relevant as possible through news and live studio programming in order to frame for sports fans the impact that these unprecedented circumstances are having on the sports world,” Magnus said. “Since this week coincidentally is the beginning of the NFL league calendar and free agency, we’ve built our schedules with an eye toward that being a major topic of conversation.”

Magnus said ESPN’s other goal is to entertain fans. They expect to do that with fun, compelling archival content and stunt event programming. The idea is to provide a diversion while there are no live sports for fans to watch.

Fans have asked the network to re-air full games, but Magnus said that in order to obtain rights to do that there would have to be individual negotiations with leagues. He said ESPN is exploring that option.

“We are working with the leagues themselves to free up the possibility to show encore presentations and discussing how we can present them. In some instances, we aren’t even the original rightsholder, which is the case for the Men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament, for example. Event programming will continue to be supplemented by ESPN live studio and news programming, plus original shows and films,” he said.

One of those original projects is The Last Dance, but Magnus said, “the reality is that the production of that film has not yet been completed, so we are limited there at the moment. Obviously, you can’t air it until it’s done.”

On the Thursday when the NBA announced that it was cancelling its games, setting off a chain reaction in the sports world, Magnus said ESPN set up a war room in a third-floor conference room in one of the networks building in Bristol, Conn.

“We had individual sport category programming teams relaying information as they were hearing it and also executing changes in real time, while the core content strategy group and our programming senior staff were making in-the-moment decisions,” he said.

“We were also collaborating with colleagues in ESPN’s content and production areas to determine what was possible from a live studio perspective. By Friday, we began working from home for the foreseeable future, so we went from our most hectic on-site work environment one day, to relying on cell phone, email and text the next,” he added. "While we were clearly concentrating on the work impact, we were simultaneously focused on the human impact, the personal impact as our teams were addressing all the critically important things happening in their own lives with schools closing and so much more.”

Jon Lafayette

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.