Last winter Getty Oil paid $10 million for a majority interest in a hitherto unknown and practically non-functioning little cable TV company in Plainville, Conn. called The Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, Inc., or, more informally, ESPN. Indeed, Getty's decision to underwrite the firm seems to have had more than a few overtones of extrasensory perception and supernatural insight: ESPN may become the biggest thing in TV sports since Monday Night Football and nighttime World Series games.
ESPN plans to launch the nation's first 24-hour sports network by Dec. 1, a nonstop telethon that will ultimately result in 8,760 hours of annual programming—every single possible hour, and seven times as many hours of sports as the three major networks combined now air in an average year. ESPN will present a mind-boggling (and, perhaps, numbing) flow of games, matches and contests, ranging from live tennis from Monaco shown at 3 a.m. to taped NCAA football games on view from 8 a.m. to midnight on most autumn weekends to a mixed bag of volleyball, water polo, fencing, crew, etc., etc.
As 23-year-old ESPN vice-president Scott Rasmussen puts it, "What we're creating here is a network for sports junkies. This is not programming for soft-core sports fans who like to watch an NFL game, then switch to the news. This is a network for people who like to watch a college football game, then a wrestling match, a gymnastics meet and a soccer game, followed by an hour-long talk show—on sports."
Twenty-four-hour sports programming is the brainstorm of Rasmussen and his father, William F., 46, president of ESPN, both experienced broadcasters. It evolved from a plan to patch together a regional network for some University of Connecticut sports events. But in checking on the use of RCA's Satcom I satellite for these transmissions, the Rasmussens discovered that for the same price they could transmit nationally instead of just regionally.
"That was in July 1978," says the elder Rasmussen. "The RCA satellite had been up since 1975. It had only two-thirds of its transponders signed. We got to thinking we should get on it, then build our own receivers. We then got an investment-banking firm to help us finance the payment and applied for a spot. Around Labor Day 1978, The Wall Street Journal ran a story on the bird. Within days, everyone wanted a spot on it—Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, Home Box Office. It was suddenly a hot property. But the government insisted on first come, first served. So even though we were little guys no one had ever heard of, we had our place on the bird. We could send nationally."
Since then, the number of cable TV stations able to receive satellite transmissions has increased enormously: to 300 stations in January 1978. The number is expected to reach 2,500 by the end of 1979. The Rasmussen network will begin broadcasting on Sept. 7 with 12 hours of programming on weekdays and 19 on weekends. "The NCAA contract is our central source," says William Rasmussen. As now envisioned, ESPN's 24-hour broadcasts will consist of about 65% NCAA sports, 20% non- NCAA events (e.g., Davis Cup tennis, LPGA tournaments, oddball sports such as Irish hurling) and 15% non-event programs (news, talk shows, etc.).
The NCAA contract was designed so it wouldn't conflict with the NCAA's agreements with ABC (football) and NBC (basketball). "We didn't want to take anything away, we just wanted to supplement their coverage," says William Rasmussen. "Our agreement requires us to televise all 18 NCAA sports—and all the championships except basketball, which is NBC's. And we can do basketball games up to the semifinals."
ESPN will pay each college $3,500 for a major sports event such as a football or basketball game. The network cannot simultaneously televise events that the major networks broadcast, but can show them on a delayed basis, and during the football season it cannot begin to air its taped football telecasts until after 10:30 p.m. to protect ABC's exclusivity. But once under way, ESPN will be airing no fewer than four college football games each Saturday night and all day Sunday—except during prime NFL telecasts. Then ESPN will counterprogram, putting on soccer or gymnastics as an alternative for pro football-saturated junkies.
The broadcast potential of ESPN is limited to the number of U.S. homes that have cable: at the moment about 20% of the national TV audience, roughly 14.5 million homes, are hooked up. But ESPN will be financed by advertising instead of subscription. At the moment, the network has signed Anheuser-Busch for a $1.38 million package, and other advertisers are coming in—at the bargain rate of $1,000 for a 30-second spot.
With financing now set, the Rasmussens are having five mobile transmission units built (above, a model) for $1.5 million each. And in the most ambitious leap of all, the network will bid on U.S. TV rights for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. ESPN has put up the $750,000 earnest money required to qualify for the coming auction. "We're serious," says William Rasmussen. "We're willing to go close to what NBC paid for the Moscow Olympics [$85 million]. We'd like to get the whole show, but what we expect to happen is that we'll share with one of the major networks. If they want to do 50 or 60 hours of programming from L.A.—O.K. We'll do the 100 or 200 hours they don't want. We aren't in business to restrict the Olympics only to cable-TV owners. We want to add to the regular network coverage."