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And here, in this proliferating multitude of satellite ground receivers, may lie the true future of TV sport—the ad hoc network. "All a promoter has to do is get his production together, and then put up a signal to a satellite that reaches any given number of earth stations, and he has an instant network," says Gus Hauser of Warner Cable. "You could create a network for any one-of-a-kind event—the Masters, the NCAA basketball final, the Super Bowl. You could make an ad hoc network to broadcast anything. Instead of three big networks, we can have 40 or 50 satellite networks. They can serve every freaky appetite in the country."
Exactly! Of course, satellite and/or cable systems that establish networks beyond the Big Three have already been created. There is the Christian Broadcast Network, which has access to more than nine million households. There is-the USA Network, owned by UA-Columbia Cablevision and Madison Square Garden. USA beams its programming coast to coast to some eight million potential viewers by means of 1,400 systems. It includes everything from Black Entertainment Television to a children's show called Calliope to professional sports. Sport makes up 70% of USA's programming, most of it, unlike ESPN's, of big league caliber.
And yes, what about ESPN, certainly one of the strangest creations in the history of mass communications? In the fall of 1979, when ESPN, owned by Getty Oil, began sending out its signal from Transponder No. 7 on SATCOM I, the network's executive vice-president, Scott Rasmussen, said lightly, "This is a service for sports junkies." Today there are those—wives mostly—who think he was absolutely right: full-contact karate at 12:30 a.m., weightlifting at 5:30 a.m., Australian rules football at 8 a.m., "superstar volleyball" at 11 a.m., rodeo at 2 p.m. Nonstop sports around the clock, 24 hours a day, 8,760 hours a year. And who is out there to see all of it? Who cares?
ESPN gets letters from those who care. A man from Kearny, N.J. wrote: "I work nights 4 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. and have been viewing your station for almost a year." From Lincoln, Neb.: "With a baby boy we aren't able to attend as many sporting events as before, but with ESPN we can enjoy our boy and our sports together." From Burns, Ore.: "I am an old woman living alone, and I love baseball, football, boxing and rodeo. I watch a lot of Canadian football games. Thank you." And from a certain spectator in Lolo, Mont.: "Keep up the fine work. I know I can always watch a good game after work. Hooray for the SATCOM I."
Almost 11 million households can pick up ESPN without extra charge via some 2,200 cable systems. The network itself figures it will have a potential reach of 12 million by the end of this year and a truly amazing 30 to 35 million by 1985. ESPN relies on advertising for its basic revenue, but commercial time goes for a relative pittance. Whereas the Big Three networks charge up to $110,000 for a 30-second spot, the most ESPN gets for a 30-second ad is $1,200. ESPN also charges its cable systems 4¢ a month for each subscriber, which isn't much—and may not be enough. It has lost an enormous amount of money in the 23 months it has been in business, perhaps as much as $75 million.
ESPN's biggest ad-revenue-producing deal to date was much ballyhooed last fall, when Anheuser-Busch came on board with a $25 million, five-year contract. Anheuser was—and still is—the network's only beer advertiser. A major problem advertisers have with ESPN is that it has no precise rating system to define its audience. Chet Simmons, the former president of NBC Sports who is now top man at ESPN, says, "We need some kind of a measurement technique. Advertisers are sold by demographics. We should have the problem solved by early next year. For now, about the best we can say is that we deliver almost exclusively a male audience. Beer drinkers? That we can guarantee. Women? Nope. We're trying to get into more women-oriented shows."
Women? Nope is right. The wife of Dave Squires is a tiny (5'3"), pretty woman, also age 30. Sandy Squires is a vocational rehabilitation counselor and a sports fan—up to a point. "Yes, I like sports," she says, "but...but...well, you know, there's so much of it, and, well, we have another TV set in the bedroom, and I like to go to bed early anyway and...." Dave Squires says without equivocation, "My limiting factor in how much I watch sports is my wife."
Simmons might like to bring Sandy Squires into the fold, but he refuses to do it by diluting the network's total commitment to sports. "That is our trademark and, in that sense, we have no competition," says Simmons. "The commercial networks and USA Network do horizontal programming. We do vertical programming, no movies, no news documentaries. This gives us the flexibility to do so many more things than any other network. It's important to us that the public recognizes us as the place where you can always find sports."
But what sports? Is ESPN really the network of the future? Can a sports network flourish indefinitely on a full-time menu of offbeat and minor league events? Simmons is concerned. "We're in a credibility situation," he says. "We have to prove sometime soon that we have the money and the outlets to do major league stuff. If we do nothing but county soft-ball championships, then we might as well pack up and forget it."
Simmons says ESPN was approached this season by the Yankees, Cardinals and Angels to take on a 57-game schedule, but "the deal dried up." He has been dickering with the NCAA for some kind of a major-college football package besides the 50 to 60 delayed games ESPN now televises. "We could do football games in prime time on Saturday nights, which is something the networks would never think of doing," says Simmons. "This wouldn't conflict with ABC's Saturday afternoon package. We could do events at the Olympics that ABC doesn't want. We could do reruns of NFL games all week long. We could take an hour to dissect each play if we wanted to. There are so many things we can do with all the hours we have."