By Mavis Scanlon ESPN, which for over two decades has reveled in its position as the dominant provider of sports programming on cable, is now facing intense competition from regional networks and from leagues seeking to cut out the network middleman. It’s also under fire from cable operators for its steep license fees. Meanwhile, exorbitant sports rights packages are squeezing profits. ESPN created its first scripted drama, Playmakers, in part to offset the rising cost of rights fees, but may cancel the program after its first season due to pressure from its sports and advertising partners. Through it all, ESPN still commands high ratings. CableWORLD caught up with ESPN president George Bodenheimer to get his thoughts on these and other topics. CW: Who’s a bigger thorn in your side, Jim Robbins or Rocco Commisso?
Bodenheimer: Well, neither one. They are both valued customers. CW: I had a bet that you wouldn’t say the word “value” until at least the second or third answer.
Bodenheimer: Well, you know that’s what we like to talk about around here. I’m heartened to see everybody has caught on—cable operators and other programmers. CW: When did you first learn Cox was going public with its fight against hikes in ESPN license fees?
Bodenheimer: I don’t recall a first time. It’s been several months now, so I’m not entirely sure. CW: What feedback have you gotten on keepespn.com?
Bodenheimer: I’m very satisfied with the results—we’ve had tens of thousands of fans log on and register their support. I’m very happy with the tone and context of the messaging that we’re getting—there are a lot of ESPN fans out there. CW: Do you foresee other operators following in Cox’s footsteps?
Bodenheimer: No, I really don’t. For 24 or 25 years now we’ve negotiated with our affiliates, and negotiations have been private. I think it’s somewhat of a disservice for all to lay it out in public. CW: Can Cox and ESPN find some middle ground?
Bodenheimer: I think so; I’ve said that all along. I’m an optimist by nature and I’m optimistic that we will reach an agreement. CW: The big complaint about ESPN is that it squeezes every nickel it can out of operators rather than dealing with them as true partners. Your response?
Bodenheimer: I don’t think any other company in the business is doing more to provide value and support operators’ businesses as ESPN is doing. We have one of, if not the most, valuable brand in the business. Just this year we have introduced ESPN HD, ESPN Motion and ESPN Broadband, and coming early next year is ESPN Deportes. So I put that record of achievement up against any other network company in the business. CW: What are your plans for the NHL? Ratings are disappointing—are you willing to dump the sport?
Bodenheimer: We’re big hockey fans here. We’d like to continue our relationship with the NHL. CW: How much time do you spend watching the network?
Bodenheimer: I watch an awful lot of our product, but I work on consuming as much of our product as I can whether it’s the four television networks, the radio network, the dot-com or the magazine. I think it’s important that all our employees know as much about the products as possible. CW: Who’s your Super Bowl pick?
Bodenheimer: I’ll make that pick after the conference championships are over. CW: Where will you be spending the holidays?
Bodenheimer: Home with the family. That’s in New Canaan, Conn. CW: How do you split your time between Bristol, New York and Disney corporate?
Bodenheimer: I’m usually in New York three to four days a week and Bristol the other days if I’m not traveling. CW: Will this Christmas be the tipping point for HDTV set sales?
Bodenheimer: I’m not sure I know what the tipping point is, but I do see an acceleration in sales driven in part by ESPN’s entrance into the market. CW: You’re on a panel at CES in January with Chuck Dolan. What might you ask him about VOOM?
Bodenheimer: I would ask him how it’s going and what his long-term vision for the platform is. CW: Do athletes make too much money?
Bodenheimer: It’s not my position to say if someone does or doesn’t make too much money.

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