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January 13, 2014

ESPN breaks mold with Megacast

Photos | Allen Kee / ESPN Images Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban (center) joins the College GameDay crew of (from left) Desmond Howard, Chris Fowler, Lee Corso, and Kirk Herbstreit as part of the BCS Megacast.
Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston (with crystal football) celebrates his team’s 34-31 victory after the national championship game.
Florida State fans try to get on television during the 2014 BCS National Championship Game.
Photo | Allen Kee / ESPN Images Auburn held the lead for much of the national championship game and limited Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston (5) until the closing moments of the fourth quarter.

Bristol sports network ESPN found a new way to connect a fragmented and distracted audience in its coverage of the Jan. 7 college football national championship.

During the Florida State-Auburn Bowl Championship Series game, ESPN offered viewers 11 different platforms to watch and experience the game called BCS Megacast. The game aired on a half-dozen ESPN channels, with options that ranged from the traditional broadcast anchored by Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit to a showing that featured ESPN analysts and celebrities, including Cheryl Hines, providing play-by-play commentary.

Another channel displayed live tweets from sports stars, celebrities and even the average Joe. The entire package was designed to offer fans an ultimate viewing experience, ESPN executives say, and it seemed to gain a following.

The game — won by Florida State 34-31 — attracted 26.1 million viewers, the third largest audience for any program in cable television history.

“This was the first time anything like this was ever attempted on this scale,” said Richard Hanley, associate professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University. “This is a model other networks will follow for big events.”

Last spring, ESPN kicked around the Megacast idea for 2015 when college football switches from a single championship game to a four-team playoff. However, once ESPN started lining up the programming, the network realized the Megacast would be ready for this year, said Ilan Ben-Hanan, ESPN vice president of programming and acquisitions.

Although the decision hasn't yet been made for next year, Ben-Hanan said the Megacast model likely will be used again, maybe with some changes to the options offered on the different platforms. Although Ben-Hanan just works on college football, he said colleagues in charge of other sports were excited about applying it to their events as well.

“There is a good chance we will do something like this for big events in the future,” Ben-Hanan said. “This was the first time out, and there was a lot of experimentation.”

ESPN and other networks would be wise to continue broadcasts similar to this in the future, said Hanley, who also is the graduate journalism director at Quinnipiac.

The modern viewing audience is very fragmented and distracted, with several options on how to view different events, Hanley said. Viewers often will turn on multiple devices at once, with one eye on a network's broadcast and another eye online.

“This Megacast model gives you both eyeballs,” Hanley said. “One eye is looking at the game, and the other eye is looking at ESPN3 and watching the reaction on campus.”

This model exploited all of ESPN's assets in a way that no other broadcast ever had, Hanley said. The Megacast only works for large viewing events, he said, but could be carried over to the World Cup final for soccer, the Super Bowl, and the NCAA Final Four men's basketball tournament.

ABC — which like ESPN is a division of the Walt Disney Co. — should experiment with something similar for its coverage of the Academy Awards for movies, Hanley said. In addition to the traditional broadcast, ABC could offer red carpet coverage and commentary along with discussions either online or on TV of the Oscar winners and nominees.

“It allows your audience to look at the event in different formats,” Hanley said. “It is a way to get every eyeball on your brand.”

The only time anything similar to ESPN's Megacast has been attempted was NBC's Triplecast of the 1992 Summer Olympics, Hanley said. The network tried to add live pay-per-view options on top of the tape-delayed traditional broadcast, but that effort didn't resonate with viewers.

ESPN's Megacast did strike a chord with its audience. The BCS game got the most views ever on the WatchESPN app for smartphones and tablets, showing a 199 percent increase in viewership over the 2013 championship game, according to stats released by ESPN.

The 26.1 million viewers who watched the game on ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPNews is the third largest audience for any program in cable television history. Only the 2011 and 2013 championship games had a larger audience. ESPN's figures for the 2014 game only include three of the five platforms, as ESPN Classic and ESPN Deportes don't track ratings.

Most fan reaction, largely on social media, has been positive, Ben-Hanan said. Fans complained about individual components of the Megacast — such as having celebrities talking during the game — but the overall concept was well received, he said.

“I don't think I can watch another sporting event without a #Megacast,” Twitter follower @BarstoolJJ wrote.

“whoever's idea it was to have this #megacast deserves multiple raises. we need this for all championship games from each sport,” Twitter follower @oneloveonebeing wrote.

By far the breakout star of the Megacast was the “BCS Film Room” shown on ESPNews, Ben-Hanan said. That show featured in-depth analysis of the game's football logic from coaches who played against Florida State and Auburn earlier in the season.

“Those are ESPN's people — the really die-hard fans who want things broken down for them,” Ben-Hanan said.

The best part of that show came in the second quarter when Florida State's surprise fake-punt play was correctly predicted by the entire panel of coaches, Ben-Hanan said.

“That is really a signature moment for the production,” Ben-Hanan said.

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