If you have ever dreamed of becoming a "SportsCenter" anchor, ESPN is ready to give you a chance.
The cable network is developing "Dream Job," a primetime reality series that will invite aspiring sportscasters to submit audition tapes for consideration in an "American Idol"-style competition. ESPN will give the winner a one-year gig on "SportsCenter."
"Dream" is just one of several projects ESPN is developing on the original programming front under its ESPN Original Entertainment banner.
In its first stab at a scripted series, ESPN has scheduled the behind-the-scenes football drama "Playmakers" for August.
"Instead of sitting on our ratings success, we're investing in new properties," said executive vp programming and production Mark Shapiro, who admitted that the stakes are high.
"We're going to give the series business a shot, but there's little room for failure here," he said. "We want to go one-for-one."
After two well-received original movies, "A Season on the Brink" and "The Junction Boys," ESPN in December will team with screenwriter Joe Eszterhas ("Basic Instinct") on "The Ice Bowl." A Pete Rose biopic could soon follow.
ESPN is flying high these days, though its relationship with cable operators remains at a low ebb.
Its total day viewership climbed 14% in the first quarter among men 18-49 and all viewers despite the flocking of many males to the news networks. The NBA has tripled ESPN's ratings in those time periods, though the programming is much more costly than that previously in the time slot.
The network has renewed several of its new original shows, including "Around the Horn," which improved time period numbers by 70%; "Pardon the Interruption," a 78% improvement; and its reality series "Beg, Borrow and Deal," which will return this fall for a Miami-to-Mt. Rushmore run.
ESPN will produce "Dream" in-house. Contestants on the show will compete in four categories: play-by-play, sideline reporting, one-on-one interviews and "SportsCenter" highlight voice-overs. Viewers and a panel of judges likely will decide the winners. The network is not yet accepting tapes and has not decided on the series' length.
"Most of our fans grow up watching ESPN, enjoying the action and, at the same time, envision themselves delivering the message," Shapiro said.
Much like "Idol," product placement is expected to play a prominent role on "Dream." ESPN is already talking with advertising agencies.
ESPN will set out in October to change men's viewing habits in the mornings with the new general-entertainment talk radio-type show "Cold Pizza," which will be co-hosted by Kit Hoover, an entertainment reporter from Fox News. The network has not yet named the show's male co-host.
ESPN also said it will launch ESPN PPV, a network that will act as an outlet for niche programming to which the network owns the rights but which it is not using such as regional games of the NCAA men's baseball championships or college hockey. Executives say the network is another revenue opportunity for ESPN and cable operators, but it could have an effect on competing niche networks.
Any programming unused by ESPN would usually revert to secondary rights holders like College Sports Television. But CSTV president and CEO Brian Bedol said ESPN's move could help networks like his by creating a greater demand for digital sports tiers.
"We have more great programming to choose from than we have time to program," he said. "If ESPN can get out and create more interest in stuff besides men's basketball and football, that's great for us."
But even though ESPN has won over viewers, the network is facing a more difficult situation with cable affiliates, who are looking for justification for its license fees -- the most expensive in the industry.
ESPN in January unveiled an alternative rate structure, designed in part to encourage operators to launch such new ESPN digital services as ESPN HD, ESPN Desportes, ESPN Broadband and video on demand and also to expand the reach of ESPN Classic. Rather than raising rates 20% a year, as allowed under its current contracts, the new plan caps the hike at 16% this year and gradually lowers the annual increases to 11% by 2008-14, sources said.
In exchange, operators would agree to launch the new ESPN services.
While operators have privately complained about the cable net's fees, which now vary from $1.75 to the lower-$2 area, ESPN's executive vp affiliate relations Sean Bratches said that they can cut their fees to the equivalent of $1 by aggressively pursuing local ad sales.
Also, ESPN executives say those operators are taking a short-sighted view because many of the new services will eventually bring revenue to their systems. Bratches predicted that most operators will sign on for the network's lineup of new services. "These programs provide significant benefits to our customers," he said.