The ESPN effect
Back in the late 1970s, when cable TV was a luxury that somehow came to my cousins' house in Manhattan, Kan., before it came to my family in suburban Chicago (OK, I guess Grayslake, Ill., was more a rural town than a suburb at that point), many things seemed amazing about the programming that was offered.
I remember a visit to my cousins' house in 1979 and sitting down to watch “The Swarm” on Showtime, a movie about killer bees that had come out just one year earlier and was now on TV. (Unheard of!) It was my first cable TV experience.
Then we turned the channel to what looked like the local newscast, but was, in fact, what my uncle referred to as “ESPN, the Eternal SPorts Network.” My 11-year-old body lived and breathed baseball at that point, so imagine my excitement. Yet, after about an hour, it started to lose its appeal. The set was cheap, the broadcasters weren't former jocks. My excitement also gradually turned to disbelief and fear — it's always on? What kind of sports are they talking about at 2 a.m.? It was actually one of the first times that I thought about life as a 24-hour concept, the pervasiveness of it extremely daunting.
ESPN eventually got its act together. Nowadays, it's more than a 24-hour sports marathon — it's a lifestyle, with sports as a backdrop, packaged and delivered and always in the heads of those who allow it to enter. This past Superbowl Sunday, the latest extension of that lifestyle, Mobile ESPN, was scheduled to debut. It's a new MVNO that tests and stretches previous theories about mobile service, brand, content and the marketing of lifestyle. If it works, it will change the pecking order in the mobile industry so that the lifestyle brands of the owners of content move ahead of the companies that are operating networks on which those offerings ride. If it doesn't work, the industry may not change much at all, but who thinks it won't work?
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