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ESPN-Star Sports ups ante
Jai Arjun Singh |
September 27, 2003
It promises to be a feast for the cricket lover's senses. One of the many sidelights of the Indian cricket team's much-awaited tour to Australia later this year will be the ESPN Cricket Show, co-anchored by Indian captain Sourav Ganguly.
On a set designed by the art director of the latest Mad Max movie, the outspoken Indian skipper will discuss topics like sledging with studio guests.
What makes this a real coup for ESPN is that it marks the first time anywhere in the world that the playing captain of a national cricket team will host a television programme during a tour.
The Ganguly show is just one of many new ventures aimed at keeping sports viewers from switching channels.
It's all part of what a sports channel has to do to survive in the Indian market -- especially given that ESPN doesn't have rights to the next tournament in the sport that matters most in India.
Doordarshan has exclusive rights to the India-New Zealand Test series.
But there are no furrowed brows in the ESPN-Star Sports office. "It's an exciting time for us in terms of programming and innovation," says R C Venkateish, who recently took over from Manu Sawhney as the company's managing director.
Naturally, the advent of a busy cricket season provides the perfect starter. But there's much more in the production room. Other feathers in the company's cap include its rights to complete year-round coverage of Formula One.
Strong viewership is expected, says Venkateish, since, unlike last season when Michael Schumacher established an early lead and never relinquished it, this time the competition is a lot closer. All the better for a sports channel on an eyeball-hunt.
And what of "the world's greatest game"? "We recently completed the acquisition of the Spanish League, which strengthens our coverage of international football," says Venkateish.
The Spanish League couldn't be hotter right now, thanks largely to publicity surrounding the superstar-packed Real Madrid team. And soccer is the second most watched sport on television in the country.
In all, around 650 hours of soccer coverage (300 hours of live programming and 350 hours of features) will be shown in the coming season.
The channel has its sights set on maidans closer home as well. "We have taken a big step towards complementing our international coverage with domestic football," says Venkateish.
ESPN-Star Sports is telecasting the semi-finals and final of the Chlormint IFA Shield Cup this weekend.
Further, Venkateish insists that ESPN's coverage will be unlike anything seen before in India.
"For the first time, you'll see Indian football being covered the way the game is at international level," he promises. A world-class team of technicians is descending on Kolkata for the tournament.
Innovations like multi-cameras -- which revolutionised cricket coverage a few years ago -- will bring new dimensions, literally, to the East Bengal-Mohun Bagun rivalry.
Electronic Video Storage -- a digital technology that enables simultaneous replays from various angles -- will be tested on the ground, while special guests provide in-depth analysis in the studio.
This is part of the channel's strategy of breaking the monotony of the willow-wielders.
Venkateish believes it is time for cricket to loosen its hold on broadcasting innovations -- such as graphic analysis -- and for other sports to get a share of the pie.
"What you'll see in the coming months," he says, "is premium coverage for sports like football and hockey."
Will this also translate into India's other sporting heroes getting screen time comparable with that given to the cricketers?
"We are studying opportunities for other sportspersons to have programmes of their own," says the MD.
"Nothing has been finalised yet but once a decision has been reached, it will be quickly implemented."
So sports lovers should keep their fingers crossed; the likes of Dhanraj Pillay, Gopichand and Anju Bobby George could get a deserved place in the spotlight in the near future.
Even when the channel doesn't get rights to a major series, advertising is rarely a problem. "Advertisers find there is more flexibility in the sports arena," says Venkateish.
"They can participate actively in our contests and promotional schemes." And even while matches are actually on -- like those animated mascots we often see during live telecasts, which can comment on the action and promote a product at the same time.
For example, there's Anda Bhai, who appears whenever a batsman scores a duck -- but the hole in his bat and the slogan "Hila ke rakh de" serve as plugs for Center Shock too.
Indian programming accounts for between 20 per cent and 25 per cent of ESPN-Star Sports' non-live coverage. The channel will soon launch Sportsline in an India-centric, Hindi avatar.
Recent months have seen programmes like India Soccer Night, India Youth Night and India Cricket Night, which determinedly ignore the mainstream and look instead at smaller tournaments, local flavours and vignettes.
The channel has also been increasingly pro-active in promotional contests and sports events. This year marks the fourth edition of the ESPN School Quiz, in which over 1,000 schools across the country participate. The quizzes have helped the channel gauge the levels of popularity of various sports among kids.
"We were heartened to find that contrary to popular perception, schoolchildren know about a lot more than just cricket," says Venkateish.
Now, spurred by the success of the quiz, the channel has started planning for a large-scale school programme to promote sports among youngsters.
"Scholarships will be given out for outstanding sporting achievement," says Venkateish. "This fits in with our aim of encouraging and nurturing raw talent."
Further to that aim is ESPN's participation in the ongoing "Scorpio Speedster with Timex".
This is an initiative to unearth genuinely fast bowlers -- a much-rued gap in Indian cricket's portfolio -- and hone their talent.
When ESPN was approached by IMG with the idea a few months ago, it agreed immediately. The contest is spread over two months and across 10 cities.
The 10 winners from the preliminary rounds and four wildcards will compete in a grand final in Mumbai on November 21. This will be telecast on the channel; and the eventual winner will be flown to the Australian Institute of Sport Cricket Academy for coaching.
With only the first three competitions (in Delhi, Chandigarh and Lucknow) having been held at the time of writing, the response has already been phenomenal.
In Delhi, over 600 youngsters braved rain, slush and long waiting lines to turn their arm over. "Contestants came all the way from Jullandar just to participate," says Venkateish.
The channel may be focusing on cricket's less fortunate step-siblings, but it is also enthusiastic about the forthcoming India-Australia series Down Under.
The ESPN Cricket Show, which premiered earlier this week, will continue uninterrupted even as Ganguly and his men travel from Sydney to Brisbane to Melbourne in search of a "revenge win" for their World Cup Final defeat at the Aussies' hands.
Mad Max 4 art director Brian Nickless will provide the show with a "state-of-the-art, almost futuristic look".
Other highlights will be the return to the commentary box for the blunt-talking Geoffrey Boycott, following a long struggle with cancer.
Also, there's a new show with Sunil Gavaskar, titled Sunny by Night, statistical innovations, and new looks for animated mascots like bhangra specialist Runjeet Singh and perpetual duck-scorer Anda Bhai.
Is the deal with Ganguly the company's biggest coup, bigger even than the similar agreement with Sachin Tendulkar a year ago?
Venkateish avoids comparisons but admits that Ganguly has a reputation for brutal frankness and is never too far away from voicing a controversial opinion.This, presumably, will give the Cricket Show the edge over much of current sports programming. It's that edge ESPN is looking for as it aims to hit a six from the commentary box.