Friday, November 13, 2009

Media execs, Aresco and Bergofin talk at Penn State this week

This was a tremendous week to be a Penn State student if you’re interested in the sports media industry. On Wednesday, Penn State’s Center for Sports Business and Research hosted a talk and Q&A by Versus Network Senior VP, Bill Bergofin. And today the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism hosted a “conversation” and Q&A with Executive VP of Programming for CBS Sports, Michael Aresco. Here’s a quick run-down of the two talks.

Aresco began his lecture by outlining facets of his job, including negotiations, dealing with the press, and the pressure of production and programming decisions. He then jumped into a particularly well-informed philosophical discussion concerning the relationship between sports and society. Drawing on a variety of thinkers, he pointed out that sports provide a “framework for fairness” and “have a fundamental linkage with morality”—they’re “contributors to society’s values, both good and bad.”

This provided a nice launching point for a discussion of the state of college sports. Pulling from work by Paul Gallico, Aresco noted that “big time” college sports didn’t have to develop the way they did. He said that the level college games are elevated to is not inherently bad, but that issues like the facilities arms race and the struggles to keep the student in student-athlete aren’t going away; “If you continue to deny it then you’re going to have issues,” said Aresco. “You need to deal with it.”

Aresco then provided some perspective on the state of broadcast rights, the demand for sports content, and the impact of new media on the sports media landscape. Broadcast networks, he pointed out, don’t have the benefit of cable’s dual revenue sources in subscription and advertising. For the broadcast networks, this has made revenue from new media offerings an imperative area of focus. He provided the network’s shift from subscription to ad-based March Madness On Demand as a great example of the business models that are being worked out in the online environment.

Aresco complimented the questions articulated by the audience during the Q&A session. On the topic of a college football playoff, he discussed the various economic factors that would have to be considered—most importantly the impact of a playoff system on college football’s season-long interest. On the role of the media in shaping the norms and values of sports, Aresco said that CBS is “very conscious of our role as custodians of the games we produce, especially at the college level.” He closed by commenting on the decision of CBS Sports to distribute SEC football on the national level (rather than regionally), noting the interest in regions outside the South and the network’s savings on rights purchases and production.

On Wednesday, Bill Bergofin of Versus discussed the marketing strategies surrounding the 2006 rebranding of Comcast’s Outdoor Life Network as Versus, as well as the differentiation Versus has tried to create between its offerings and ESPN. The senior VP focused on the network’s attempts—successful, judging from Versus’ growth—to tap into cultural and economic currents pertinent to its target demographic. When the economy and the management class were booming and competitive in 2006, Versus was positioning itself and its content as hyper-competitive and testosterone-driven (not a stretch when you’re pushing bull-riding, NHL hockey and cage fighting). With the financial crisis, Bergofin indicated a need to maintain their image, but to recognize the search for meaning and personal fulfillment in uncertain times. A series of entertaining promotional spots for the Network reflected these differing perspectives.

Bergofin was critical of ESPN's treatment of sports. Drawing from blog posts, he suggested that sports fans are tired of ESPN's emphasis on negative stories (Versus doesn't have news and information offerings, so it's not confronted with the same struggles over news and entertainment at ESPN). Further, he described ESPN as the "McDonalds or Walmart of sports", pointing to their massive expansion in channels and offerings. Ultimately, for Bergofin, the hope is to provide the depth of sports at Versus' to match ESPN’s breadth.

Again, this Q&A session was well-informed, and Bergofin even offered some speculation on the impact a potential Comcast/NBC deal might have on Versus. He said that the NBC Sports connection would bring tremendous assets to Versus, but that the slow process of major media mergers means that noticeable changes at the network wouldn’t be apparent for close to two years.

On new media, Bergofin indicated that he hoped Versus could take a different direction than the news and information style familiar on most major sports media sites, perhaps toward more original programming. Depth of experience, again, rather than breadth.

--T.C. Corrigan

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