ACC Network (ACCN), the new, 24/7, national platform launching on Thursday, Aug. 22, revealed its new 2,800 square foot home in Bristol, Conn., Thursday morning. Following the reveal, Rosalyn Durant, ESPN senior vice president, college networks and Amy Rosenfeld, ESPN senior coordinating producer and production lead for ACCN, were available to the media via conference call.
THE MODERATOR: Good morning, everyone. Thank you so much, A, for joining the call, and B, for your patience. We had a lot of fun the last 20 minutes trying to get our studio reveal played, and so I hope you were able to look at the Vimeo link we sent of the reveal. It will likely be on ACCNX at noon, and I will confirm that if and when it is and make sure that you guys have that information, as well, that it did play on ACCNX.
I have with us today to tell you about the network and talk to you about the studio, Rosalyn Durant, senior vice president of college networks, and Amy Rosenfeld, our senior coordinating producer, who can tell you about the studio if you did get a chance to see it. If not, it will just be complementary information for later when you watch it.
Amy, are there any special notes you’d like to point out to this group before we get going?
AMY ROSENFELD: Ultimately the overarching theme for us was to try to be reflective of the conference itself, and so what we tried to demonstrate through the look and feel of the studio is sort of an ode to the past, a nod to the academic strength of the conference, but also at the same time being forward-thinking, tech forward. So hopefully — that’s not an easy blend with the old and the new, but hopefully we achieved that.
One of the interesting parts of the studio is that many times a problem creates innovation, and our problem was that the studio which is kind of like a giant Thomas’s English muffin, so there’s all these nooks and crannies you have to get to, and ultimately the studio is fully robotic other than a jib and a jib operator.
So the idea of trying to get from the main desk to the conversation area nimbly and quickly, which looked great on paper, was like one of those bumper car events like at a carnival. So the problem created innovation. How do we solve this?
So for the first time at ESPN, we actually constructed robotic cameras out of scenery, and things that look like end tables now the top flips open and a robotic camera telescopes out of it, and that’s how we solved that problem.
So the whole studio has been a series of that. I think my whole career has been a series of problems leading to innovation. So it’s really cool, and I think the thing that’s complicated but great is that now studio spaces become not just a location to house a bunch of on-air folks, it becomes a content delivery mechanism. So this studio, which has monitors everywhere, is organic and alive and requires and demands that the production team are constantly fueling those monitors to advance the content.
You know, in some ways it’s window dressing and wallpaper as a backdrop, but in many cases it’s actually advancing content. We’re full-on in rehearsals now. Teaching Coach Rick how to use the touch screen was pretty cool. Smart guy. So I think hopefully you guys all like it. We’re learning as we go, but that’s sort of the nuts and bolts of the studio.
Q. Can you just talk a little bit about where you stand distribution-wise?
ROSALYN DURANT: For some reason, I’m not surprised that that was the first question. I can tell you, this is Rosalyn speaking, that we are very pleased with the distribution agreements that we have in place currently, and as you’d imagine, we continue to have lots of conversations, and productive conversations, with other distributors for ACC network coverage, in the ACC footprint and beyond the footprint.
We are very fortunate also to already have multiple viable options in place for fans to access the network if their home distributor does not carry it. There are four national distributors in place already with DirecTV, Hulu Live TV, Sony PlayStation Vue, and YouTube TV is the latest one, and we anticipate more options in the near future.
Q. I’m curious maybe for Rosalyn if you guys think you’ve had the success with some of the virtual providers more quickly than you have with the traditional, and I’m curious, you mentioned in the studio reveal, for either of you if you could talk about where this emphasis on women’s sports came from and why this network has put that at the forefront as you begin to launch?
ROSALYN DURANT: So I’ll start and ask Amy to talk a little bit more — just talk about our women’s sports approach. I will tell you that the fans — you guys have seen the content. The content was going to be incredible for this network. You’ve seen some of the announcements. Fans deserve to have it. You’ve seen them be more and more vocal about their interests in having it. They are demanding it. I expect that that would only increase as we near launch, and that doesn’t go unnoticed.
You do know that these discussions, negotiations take time, and timing matters here. So while we are very pleased, incredibly pleased with the options that we have in place with our streaming partners and others, we are confident that there will be other announcements in the very near future.
And the second question is on women’s sports?
AMY ROSENFELD: Yeah, I can handle that. Look, ultimately we have the great benefit that this conference, they’re really good at a lot of sports. They happen to be really good at a bunch of sports that happen to be played by women. So our job here is to super serve two audiences. We’ve got to super serve the fans of the ACC, but we also have to super serve fans of different sports. So my background is in soccer. Even if I wasn’t a fan of the ACC, I would be a huge fan of some of the teams and specifically some of the women’s teams that happen to come from the ACC.
We just have an embarrassment of riches that there are many great sports teams in this conference and a whole bunch of them are played by female student-athletes.
The emphasis on women’s sports, I would just say the emphasis is on great sports, on great student-athletes, and oh, by the way, some of them happen to be women. We’re really lucky here.
ROSALYN DURANT: Let me just add to that that all of that is very true and would be true even if you didn’t have women in senior positions in the leadership team for this network. But it is something that we are personally proud of. It is something that we think about and that you should expect to continue to be an emphasis for us moving forward.
Q. I was wondering if you could talk about — as far as I can remember this is the first ESPN channel launch where kind of those virtual MVPDs have been out there, where you’re just not negotiating with kind of the more traditional cable operators, so I was wondering how that changes kind of what the distribution negotiating strategy for the ACC Network has been compared to say the SEC Network or ESPNU or any of the launches before that?
ROSALYN DURANT: You’re right, the media landscape now is vastly different than it was five years ago with our last linear network launch, but some things don’t change. How we think about success for a network launch is the same. It’s about having — we call it a multiplicity of providers, and we’ve always had the traditional, now we also have the streaming providers to add to that mix. We are very pleased with the providers that we already have on board. We wanted this network to be as widely available as possible. Fans deserve that. So we are pleased to have more options, to have four national options ready to go at launch and believe that it will set this network up for tremendous success.
Q. Sorry to keep circling back to this, but in terms of availability, I know the commissioner mentioned at the ACC Kickoff that people had the option to kind of switch providers and go to those four national providers that are available, but I’m just curious with the local providers like your Xfinitys and your Comcasts and companies like that, is it solely contingent upon demand from the fans calling in, or is there something in place just in case?
ROSALYN DURANT: I think that’s another great question. I will tell you I’m going to repeat what I’ve mentioned before, is that we are having productive conversations with distributors outside of the ones that have already been announced. Those conversations continue and will continue through launch and beyond launch. So we are both pleased with where we are. We do believe that the fans continuing to demand it and fans’ readiness to switch if their home provider doesn’t provide it gives notice. Of course that’s part of the equation, but there are many things that have to be considered, and all of those are being discussed as part of our ongoing conversations.
Q. I think as demonstrated today with the technical difficulties of this launch show that I watch a lot of streaming sports and you do run into these problems with feeds not being available, and if they’re not available, they’re cutting out or whatnot. Are you confident that you have the technological infrastructure to prevent those type of technical difficulties that you see with these streaming services?
AMY ROSENFELD: Yeah, I think that ESPN has a pretty strong record of a vast volume of digital events. Look, do things happen? Of course things happen. I’ve been a 30-year truck producer, and I can give you a chronological and alphabetical list of all of the things that have happened.
But ultimately ESPN and the infrastructure and the backbone, we feel very confident that the delivery that’s already existed on the ACC Network digital side, that’s been an ongoing, viable entity for some time here, and when I think about the fact that my parents were actually able at times over the course of the few years to log in without a lot of issues, I feel pretty confident.
If they can do it, anybody can do it.
Q. What type of lessons did you learn from either the launch of the SEC and Longhorn Networks that you guys might be for familiar it or from looking at other conference affiliated networks around the country when you guys were undertaking this particular launch?
ROSALYN DURANT: It’s a really good question. I can tell you that ACC Network will be focused on serving ACC fans. That is where we are. Our content offline will be made for that fan base, catering to the sports and stories that are most important to them, offering them unprecedented access to the programs that the people that they cheer for. Again, you’ve seen many of those announcements. Fans have told us that that’s what they want, and so that’s what we’re delivering, and that’s unique to the ACC.
Again, ESPN has a 40-year history, so launching a network and having success with a network is our business and it is what we do, but each one is different, and this one will be no exception.
Q. How much thought, if any, was given to the possibility of placing this in Charlotte instead of Bristol like the SEC Network?
ROSALYN DURANT: We looked at various options for the placement of the studio and quickly realized that it made most sense to have the studio based here at our world-class facilities in Bristol, Connecticut. We will continue to have a strong presence in Charlotte. Several members of our staff and our leadership team will be based in Charlotte, so we see it as the best of both worlds. We have access available for use in Charlotte and people there, and we have tremendous facilities in Bristol and people here.
Q. For Rosalyn, I’m sure by now you have a pretty good sense of which providers are far enough along in negotiations that there’s a good chance they would be able to add you this month and have providers have given you a flat no and it’s going to take another year or two or three for them to add you, waiting until their overall Disney/ESPN deals to expire for you guys to have more leverage. Specifically wanted to get a sense of where you are in the negotiation process with COX cable, Comcast cable, DISH Network, Spectrum cable, which camps those fall into?
ROSALYN DURANT: I’m sure you’re not surprised that I can’t speak to the specifics of our negotiations, but I can’t. But again, what’s important to us is that fans are able to see the network and their team on August 22nd when we launch, and we are confident that between — with the deals that we already in place and others that are sure to come on board between now and launch that fans will have options.
Q. And just to clarify, if their local or cable satellite provider is still a no when you launch, their only options are to switch to somebody else in terms of another provider, there’s not going to be — they can’t go online to ESPN.com/watch and see this, they can’t get on an ESPN app and see this, their only options will be to switch; is that correct?
ROSALYN DURANT: That is correct.
Q. Obviously John Swofford had said at Media Day that some could be added up until the last minute, some could be added later on in August, but he specifically said some will not happen for a year or two or three until ESPN has more leverage with their deals expiring with ESPN/Disney, their overall deals. How many providers are in the first category, that there could be some good news coming this month and how many of in that latter category that Swofford spoke about at Media Day?
ROSALYN DURANT: I’m going to ask you to practice patience on this one. You’re going to have to bear with us and wait and see what happens. I will tell you that we’re going to keep going until we get them all.
Q. With the addition of YouTube TV this week, is there an estimate of projections of how many households the network will reach currently nationwide?
ROSALYN DURANT: Well, we have four national distributors, so the network is already available throughout the country.
Q. Any numbers, though, right now? I know there’s still negotiations going on right now, but if the debut was today?
ROSALYN DURANT: No numbers that I can provide.
Q. Obviously I watched the video, saw the Grass Valley cameras coming out of the desks, a lot of light fixtures, a lot of LED stuff. Other than those cool things that were shown in the video, any other cool production highlights and elements, and what’s the mantra heading into this network about creatively telling the story of these athletes?
AMY ROSENFELD: So on the studio side, it’s ready for virtual. That’s something that you wouldn’t obviously see in the video. So we’re virtual ready. We are experimenting with our capabilities on augmented reality. We are going to be pretty aggressive in the execution of data and analytics as it relates to a storytelling device. I think we’re going to try to incorporate sort of the two tiers of storytelling, which is the human side, the human interest side, but then also what is the next level of storytelling through data and analysis.
Ultimately the integration of those elements — I’ll tell you, and I don’t say this lightly, and I’m definitely dating myself, but I’ve been doing this a really, really long time, and I’ve worked on really, really big events. I’ve worked on Olympics, I’ve worked on World Cups. I have never been a part of an animation and graphics package that is as forward-thinking and innovative and cool as this ACC Network package.
Ultimately our mantra here, and it’s related to everything we’ve done on the technical side, on the look side, is be comfortable being uncomfortable. I have been aggressively uncomfortable for about a year, but feeling really good in that discomfort. We’ve got the ability to put multiple things on multiple monitors. The fact that everything is LED and can — is easy as changing colors based — now color becomes a storytelling device, so it’s pretty cool to be so uncomfortable.
Q. Specifically with regards to the University of Miami, Rosalyn, can you speak to any programming or any hopes that you guys have more the University of Miami?
ROSALYN DURANT: Well, we have a wonderful relationship with the University of Miami, and you will see what you’ve seen, some of our talent announcements. We have talent coming straight from the university. There isn’t anything to announce today as it relates to access programming specific to Miami. I think we’ve announced a couple of games that will be coming from there, including our alternate — we’re going to do an alternate production of the week zero game against Florida, so you can expect that on the network as it relates to Miami, and I can tell you, your staff there, your athletic director to the coaches, have been as welcoming and as excited about this network as anyone and have already offered to lean in and to be helpful where we need them to. So while I don’t have a lot to announce today, you should expect that there will be more to come from your university.
Q. A simple question: Ratings are driven by football and basketball, and you’ve got the national champ in football with Clemson, the national champ in basketball and the runner-up with Notre Dame. That has got to help viewership, doesn’t it?
ROSALYN DURANT: Absolutely. Fans love great content, love competitive play and love winners, and we know it’s a great time to be a fan of the ACC and we’re going to highlight those stories and programs.
Q. My question is about the hosts. I know there was the initial announcement of the hosts and the talent that would be involved in football. Do you have a timeline set for when any future talent related to basketball or some of the other Olympic sports might be announced?
AMY ROSENFELD: I don’t have a specific timeline, like here’s the date, but we definitely have my great love, soccer. Soccer is well on its way to being in place, and basketball, we’ve made a couple of announcements on the women’s side, and we are sort of aggressively moving forward on the studio side for men’s. I mean, the great benefit of ESPN is the really deep roster that already exists with excellent talent with an ACC pedigree, and there’s the benefit of being in Bristol, we can really lean on that wide roster. We’ll definitely have folks that will be specific to the ACC Network and that brand, but you can expect that you’re going to see folks that you’re familiar with on the other ESPN channels to be part of this.
But I would say soccer, the whole fall sports, soccer, volleyball, field hockey, we are well on our way to completion. So I’ll have to defer to my colleague Keri Potts on when she’s going to do her reveals.
Q. I just wanted to see, does the distribution situation factor at all into the decisions on when to schedule the games on ACC Network, considering — like say if you had things that stretched into November, Florida State-Miami, things of that nature?
ROSALYN DURANT: Maybe we need to hire you and you need to come be a part of our programming team. I like the way you — you could work remotely. I would tell you that we were going to air Georgia Tech at Clemson regardless. It’s how you start, it’s how you launch the network. The conference has been amazing with scheduling strong conference games early in the season to support and make a statement around the type of quality you should expect on this network. Regardless of where we are with distribution, you’re going to continue to see quality games on the network. We are already looking at the basketball schedule. We’ve announced a few games. There are other games that we are already identifying for later in the season regardless of where we are with distribution, that is good quality games that will land on ACC Network.
So there are many, of course, different factor that go into play as we think about the placement of games, whether they’re on ESPN, on other ESPN platforms or the network, and sure, we think about it, but the level of quality is not dependent on distribution discussions.