ESPN Looking to Replicate ‘Last Dance’ Doc Success with ‘LANCE’ Armstrong

Without live sports to showcase, analyze and endlessly promote, ESPN has resorted to televising and streaming documentaries and classic games from the past. On the heels of its success (5.6 million viewers per episode) with the Michael Jordan-themed documentary ‘The Last Dance,” the Disney-owned sports network is hoping to come close with new “30 for 30” doc “LANCE,” as in disgraced Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong.

ESPN says the two-part series (May 24/31) showcases the story of the cyclist’s rise out of Texas as a young superstar cyclist; his harrowing battle with testicular cancer; his recovery and emergence as a global icon with his seven consecutive Tour de France titles; and then his massive fall after he was exposed in one of the largest doping scandals in history.

While all true, the series more importantly reveals just how angry Armstrong remains seven years after his spectacular fall from grace following admission of systemic use of performance enhancing drugs to Oprah Winfrey, the subsequent vacating of his record seven Tour titles by French officials, and loss of tens of millions of dollars in endorsement deals.

With filters removed per his and doc director Marina Zenovich’s request, Armstrong, 49, quips and disses on everyone from his mother’s parenting, stepfather’s discipline, antidoping officials who pursued him and disloyal former teammates — except himself.

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The Plano, Texas, native remains controversial largely due to his outsized ego and competitive drive to excel in a sport historically dominated by Europeans — and in the process sell lots of bikes, kits, books and yellow fighting-cancer Livestrong wrist bands to corporate America and weekend warriors who might otherwise have swung a golf club, tennis racket or gone jogging.

“Lance’s fans pay retail,” said one bike shop owner.

The Texan’s current podcasts — The MOVE (about bike racing) and The Forward Podcast — the latter showcasing eclectic subjects fielding questions from Armstrong — underscore his singular talent to engage people with charm and swagger.

A glimpse into Armstrong’s cunning is revealed early (age 16) when he bends the rules to enter his first triathlon: “Forge the certificate, compete illegally, and beat everybody,” he brags.

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Armstrong isn’t remorseful about cheating (“I wouldn’t change a thing,” he says), he’s angry he came out of retirement (for more glory) and got legally outmaneuvered by government investigators in the process. For years, Armstrong and his team of high-paid lawyers had threatened and harassed anyone who suggested his story wasn’t actually about beating testicular cancer and becoming an iconic champion through grit and hard work.

Ironically, a few years after the Winfrey mea culpa, Armstrong found himself being booed in an Austin, Texas, restaurant.

“Some people just can’t chill the fuck out,” he said. “They’re pissed still, and they’ll be pissed forever.”

‘The Last Dance’ Draws 23.8 Million International Household Viewers for Netflix

The Last Dance, the documentary series about basketball star Michael Jordan and the 1990s Chicago Bulls championship team, attracted 23.8 million households outside the United States on Netflix, the service announced May 20.

The miniseries, a co-production of Netflix and ESPN Films, aired on ESPN in the United States April 19 through May 17 with each episode being made available the day after airing to international audiences via the SVOD service.

“23 was always his lucky number! 23.8 million households outside the U.S. checked out The Last Dance in its first four weeks on Netflix,” the service tweeted.

Jordan’s jersey number was 23.

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Walt Disney Studios Q2 Biz Deflects Pandemic; Worse Still to Come

With the extent of the coronavirus not impacting its studio operations until March, Walt Disney Studios May 5 revealed it managed to avoid a fiscal catastrophe in the second quarter (ended March 28).

Studio revenue for the quarter increased 18% to $2.5 billion, and segment operating income decreased 8% from the previous-year period to $466 million. The decrease in operating income was due to lower results at legacy operations, partially offset by the consolidation of the 20th Century Fox businesses that Disney took over a year ago. The decrease at legacy operations was due to higher film impairments and decreases in theatrical distribution and stage-play results, partially offset by an increase from TV/SVOD distribution.

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Theatrical distribution in the quarter was still negatively impacted by COVID-19 as theaters closed domestically beginning in mid-March and internationally at various times beginning late January.

Theatrical distribution results in the quarter included an increase in bad debt expense and also reflected an adverse impact from COVID-19 on the performance of Onward, which was released domestically on March 6. Other significant titles in the current quarter included Frozen II and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker compared to Captain Marvel, Mary Poppins Returns and Dumbo in the prior-year quarter.

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Stage-play results in the quarter were negatively impacted as live entertainment theaters also were closed. Growth in TV/SVOD distribution results was due to sales of content to Disney+ driven by The Lion King, Toy Story 4, Frozen II and Aladdin. This was partially offset by a decrease in sales to third parties in the pay and free television windows. The benefit from the Fox businesses reflected income from TV/SVOD distribution, partially offset by a loss from theatrical distribution and general and administrative costs. Fox theatrical releases in the current quarter included The Call of the Wild and Downhill.

“While the COVID-19 pandemic has had an appreciable financial impact on a number of our businesses, we are confident in our ability to withstand this disruption and emerge from it in a strong position,” CEO Bob Chapek said in a statement. “Disney has repeatedly shown that it is exceptionally resilient, bolstered by the quality of our storytelling and the strong affinity consumers have for our brands, which is evident in the extraordinary response to Disney+ since its launch last November.”

This is Disney’s first earnings report with former home entertainment chief Chapek as CEO. Former CEO Bob Iger in February said he would turn the reins of the company over to Chapek, who previously had run the parks division, and transition to executive chairman.

Just weeks after Chapek officially took over, the novel coronavirus led to a succession of stay-at-home orders throughout the country, and Iger stepped back in work with Chapek on day-to-day operations, according to a New York Times report.

The coronavirus pandemic has hit Disney particularly hard. Movie theaters have shuttered, productions have shut down, live sporting events have been canceled and theme parks are closed indefinitely. Theme parks accounted for 37% of Disney’s $69.6 billion total revenue in 2019.

Disney said it expects the pandemic to negatively impact the company by $1.4 billion in the current third quarter, which ends June 30.

To cut costs, Disney has furloughed thousands of workers, mostly across theme parks and resorts; taken out a $5 billion line of credit; and slashed executive pay, including a 50% pay cut for Chapek. Iger is forgoing his salary, according CNBC.

Doc ‘The Last Dance’ Top Rising Show, Netflix’s ‘Too Hot to Handle’ Top Binge on TV Time Charts

Netflix’s “Too Hot to Handle” was the top binge show while the documentary series “The Last Dance,” co-produced by Netflix and ESPN, was the top rising show on the TV Time charts for the week ended April 26.

The sports documentary “The Last Dance” follows the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls team and its star Michael Jordan. The 10-part miniseries, moved up due to the pandemic, began airing on ESPN April 19. Netflix distributes it outside the United States.

Taking the silver on the rising show chart was “Defending Jacob,” a dramatic series starring Chris Evans, Michelle Dockery and Jaeden Martell based on the bestselling novel. The Apple TV+ show, about parents whose son is accused of murdering a classmate, bowed April 24.

Topping the binge chart was Netflix’s reality show “Too Hot to Handle,” in which 10 young, hot singles from around the world come together in a tropical paradise. In the series, which debuted April 17, contestants must give up all hanky panky for the entire retreat if they want to win the $100,000 grand prize. With every slip, the prize money goes down.

Netflix’s “Money Heist,” previously the top binge for three consecutive weeks, finally gave up its crown, falling to No. 2 on the binge chart. In season four of the Spanish series, which debuted April 3, the gang is going through one of its toughest moments, and the rise of an enemy among its ranks will put the heist in serious danger.

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TV Time is a free TV viewership tracking app that tracks consumers’ viewing habits worldwide and is visited by more than 1 million consumers every day, according to the service. The weekly “Binge Report” ranks shows with the most binge sessions. A binge session is when four or more episodes of a show are watched and tracked in the app in a given day. The “Shows on the Rise” chart is calculated by determining the week-over-week growth in episodes watched for a given program. The network displayed is the network where the show first aired (e.g. “Friends” on NBC).

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 Top Binge Shows Week Ended April 26 by Share of Binges:

  1. “Too Hot to Handle” (Netflix) — 2.20%
  2. “Money Heist” (Netflix) — 2,16%
  3. “Friends” (NBC) — 1.85%
  4. “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” (NBC) — 1.75%
  5. “Grey’s Anatomy” (ABC) — 1.58%
  6. “The Office” (NBC) — 1.54%
  7. “Outer Banks” (Netflix) — 1.49%
  8. “Community” (NBC) — 1.37%
  9. “Prison Break” (Fox) — 1.16%
  10. “How I Met Your Mother” (CBS) — 1.10%

 

Top “Shows on the Rise” Week Ended April 26 by Rise Ratio:

  1. “The Last Dance” (ESPN) — 100%
  2. “Defending Jacob” (Apple TV+) — 100%
  3. “Vis a vis: El oasis” (Fox Espana) — 99.3%
  4. “After Life” (Netflix) — 94.2%
  5. “The House of Flowers” (Netflix) — 92.9%
  6. “The Last Kingdom” (Netflix) — 66.8%
  7. “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” (NBC) — 60%
  8. “Too Hot to Handle” (Netflix) — 59.1%
  9. “Bob’s Burgers” (Fox) — 58.2%
  10. “The Masked Singer” (Fox) — 58.1%

The Day Netflix’s Fiscal Call Became Irrelevant — to Netflix

Michael Morris, an analyst with Guggenheim Securities, was in a no-win position. As the Wall Street expert on tap April 21 to question Netflix executives on strong quarterly results (more than double projected sub growth) favorably impacted by the coronavirus, Morris was met with what appeared to be a collective air of guilt and concern. It was not a time to gloat or high-five success.

Indeed, Netflix added nearly 16 million subscribers worldwide in the first three months of the year — about 7 million more than revised Wall Street estimates and 9 million more than what Netflix had expected.

At a time when many media companies are scrambling to find funds, and some movie theaters are facing bankruptcy, Netflix has seen its stock reach record highs — briefly valuing the company higher than The Walt Disney Co.

CEO Reed Hastings, CFO Spenser Neumann, CCO Ted Sarandos, chief product officer Greg Peters, and Spencer Wang, VP, finance & investor relations, seemed to be in no mood to discuss the robust quarter, pricing, sub growth or balance sheet at a time when an ongoing pandemic devastates many of its markets globally.

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“It’s an incredible tragedy for the world,” Hastings said about COVID-19. “Everyone is wrestling with the implications, both on health, on hunger, poverty. And we, too, are really unsure of what the future brings.”

“It’s been humbling to be a place that people around the world in a time like this turn to for some entertainment for escape,” Peters said.

Neumann said Netflix was fortunate to be running smoothly during industry-wide shutdowns and quarantined employees, while doing the “best we can” to keep employees and production crews safe, healthy and taken care of.

“That’s been our primary focus,” he said.

Hastings said he and the rest of the company remained as uncertain about the business future in a COVID-19 universe, adding that distributing entertainment through the Internet wasn’t slowing.

“People want entertainment,” he said. “They want to be able to escape and connect, whether times are difficult or joyous. Will Internet entertainment be more and more important over the next five years? Nothing has changed in that.”

When Morris attempted to ask a question about subscription pricing and how it might be implemented in a non-virus environment, Peters wasn’t biting.

“At this point, we’re not even thinking about price increases,” he said. “What’s going on around the world is dominating our thoughts and our considerations. So, we’re really just focused on that for this period.”

When Morris flipped from asking about a price hike to a price cut with so many people out of work or furloughed, Peters deferred to Neumann, who reiterated that it “really [wasn’t the] time for us to be thinking about price changes. We haven’t lived through anything like this. So it’s so hard to tell.”

Sarandos said Netflix was deep into production for its 2021 original content slate, underscoring the fact the service has no content shortages while production is shutdown.

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Indeed, Netflix’s original true crime documentary “Tiger King” has proven to be major hit, tracking 65 million subscriber households since its March 20 launch.

“We don’t anticipate moving the schedule around much and certainly not in 2020,” Sarandos said. When asked whether Netflix would incorporate “episode spacing” rather than making all episodes of an original series available at launch, Sarandos said release strategies are being tweaked all the time.

He said the “Love is Blind” dating show featured staggered episodes while the competition series “Too Hot to Handle” was released all at once.

“Customers have spoken loud and clear that they really like the option of the all-at-once model,” Sarandos said. “So, I don’t see us moving away from that meaningfully.”

The executive lauded Netflix’s partnership with Disney-owned ESPN on the just-launched Chicago Bulls/Michael Jordan NBA basketball documentary The Last Dance, which the two companies have worked together on for several years. Netflix and ESPN streamed and aired the first two of 10 episodes beginning April 19.

“It’s been a win-win for us and ESPN, and a great win for basketball fans who’ve been very hungry for new programming,” Sarandos said.

Hastings said Netflix has resumed production in Iceland and South Korea, using those situations to learn how best to implement production in other parts of the world as shelter-in-place restrictions are lifted.

“We’re taking some of those key learnings about how we run those productions today and applying that to our plans to re-start our productions around the world,” Hastings said.

In Search of Sports During a Pandemic

With the professional and collegiate playing fields shut down during the coronavirus pandemic, sports media on television and radio has scrambled to fill the vacuum in the absence of real news.

A plethora of virtual competitions have populated some sports featuring professionals in basketball, cycling  and auto racing, among others, competing online via avatars and/or third-party action figures.

Last weekend, NASCAR driver Kyle Larson unintentionally made the most of the content void by becoming the headline for all the wrong reasons. He was suspended by NASCAR and subsequently fired by his team for using the ‘N’-word during a virtual racing event. Larson, who is half Japanese and entered stockcar racing through a diversity program, was recorded using the slur during a live-streamed iRacing tournament on the Twitch game platform. He has apologized for his gaffe.

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In Clemson, S.C., radio banter about the future college football season  and possible impact COVID-19 could have on the former national champion Tigers’ season was derailed after severe thunderstorms moving through parts of the Southeast on April 12 left one dead and a path of destruction in nearby Seneca.

On ESPN, on-air talent was greeted April 13 with news of across-the-board 15% pay cuts as the Disney-owned pay-TV channel said the company would weather the pandemic as a team. It surely beat the furloughs handed out to more than 70,000 employees at Disney’s amusement parks.

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ESPN, which has spearheaded the pandemic content hole with re-broadcasts of classic sports match-ups, dug deep on Sunday with a seven-hour Scripps National Spelling Bee marathon telecast. The event featured the 1997, 2004 and 2008 championships, including each year’s winning words: Euonym (name well suited to the person, place, or thing named); Autochthonous (an indigenous inhabitant of a place); and Guerdon (a reward or recompense).

To the non-fan, last year’s championship featured an historic eight co-champions, including seven Indian-Americans. The 2020 competition, originally slated for May, will return in 2021.

ESPN on April 19 at 9 p.m. ET begins 10-part documentary, “The Last Dance,” featuring Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls’ dynasty through the lens of their final championship season in 1997-98.

Sling TV Offering Free Service During Coronavirus Crisis

Sling TV March 18 announced a new promotion to provide consumers without a subscription free access to select news and entertainment content as the nation confronts the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis.

Launched in 2015 by Dish Network, Sling TV was the first standalone online TV platform featuring premium channel ESPN and marketed as an alternative to the traditional pay-TV bundle and SVOD.

“To stay informed in these uncertain times, Americans need access to news from reputable sources,” Warren Schlichting, group president, Sling TV, said in a statement. “With many Americans finding themselves staying at home, we have an opportunity to use our platform to help them deal with this rapidly evolving situation.”

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Free access includes ad-supported movies and shows suitable for kids and families, in addition to ABC News Live, a 24/7 streaming video news channel for breaking news and live events. Access is available through an app download on a Roku, Amazon or Android device, or by visiting sling.com on a Chrome, Safari or Edge browser and following the instructions on the welcome screen.

Current Sling TV subscribers can access free content within the user interface on any supported device, without changing their service plan.

Dish is also offering the Sling Blue service plan for $20 the first month (a $10 discount). In addition to free content, Sling streams channels, including CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, through its base services, Sling Orange and Sling Blue, starting at $30 per month.

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The Night Sports Turned Off the Lights

The evening of March 11 seemed like any normal night for Disney-owned ESPN, with evening NBA telecasts between the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder, and Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans, respectively, rounding out a broadcast schedule that was preceded by the University of North Carolina playing Syracuse University in the ACC Tournament in Greensboro, N.C.

College game commentators Jay Bilas and Dick Vitale went through their paces discussing the NCAA’s decision to run the pending March Madness national basketball tournament without spectators due the spreading coronavirus pandemic. The news overshadowed an upset in the making on the court as the storied N.C. Tar Heels were being dominated by the visiting Orange.

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Then came the bombshell: the NBA was suspending its season indefinitely after a player on the Jazz tested positive for the coronavirus. With games in Oklahoma City and Sacramento canceled before they began, and Jazz players and team officials quarantined in their locker room by health officials (a second Jazz player would test positive a day later), ESPN toggled between its headquarters in Bristol, Conn., Oklahoma City, Sacramento and Greensboro giving updates on the rapidly changing situation.

“I’ve loved [college basketball] for 40-something years,” Vitale said. “I never in my wildest dreams would think that I would say the NCAA tournament should be canceled, but it should be. There’s no doubt it should be. Health and safety is a priority. That’s the No. 1 priority. The NCAA has got to act and act quick.”

Indeed, within the next 24 hours the NCAA and most professional leagues (MLB, NHL, MLB, XFL, Nascar, PGA Tour and Association of Tennis Professionals, etc.), the Boston Marathon and high school sports competition in the United States had been either shut down or postponed for the next 30 days or longer.

With President Trump March 13 declaring a national emergency regarding COVID-19, ESPN and ESPN+, the brand’s subscription streaming video platform, and other sports TV networks were left with a gaping content hole that not even endless coronavirus chatter could fill.

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“This is an unprecedented situation,” ESPN said in a statement. “We have great relationships with our league partners and are confident we can address all issues constructively going forward. Our immediate focus is on everyone’s safety and well-being.”

The network March 12 aired its venerable “SportsCenter” program non-stop interviewing (now) idle coaches and game analysts around the country — many backtracking earlier comments that they felt the games should continue.

Fox Sports shuttered until March 20 all studio show productions due to the virus. NBCUniversal, Netflix and Amazon, among other media companies, advised their employees to work from home going forward.

With most of Hollywood shutting down content production to safeguard employees, and AT&T mandating that all employees (including WarnerMedia Entertainment) work from home if possible, the COVID-19 fiscal impact on the entertainment industry and the U.S. economy in general remains to be seen.

“In terms of impact on media, it really depends on how the virus plays out,” Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, told The Wall Street Journal. “The NBA and major media companies will have to focus on the health and safety of their employees and stakeholders. That will drive all decision-making.”

ESPN+ Secures First-Ever Streaming Rights to PGA Tour, Including Branded SVOD Service

The PGA Tour March 9 announced new nine-year domestic media rights portfolio covering 2022 to 2030 with CBS and NBC for broadcast and pay-TV, while for the first time signing exclusive over-the-top video rights to Disney-owned ESPN+, including standalone PGA Tour Live subscription streaming video service.

“Following a comprehensive process of studying the market, talking to all interested parties and analyzing our various options … we are excited to be back in business with Disney and ESPN+,” PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan said in a statement.

For the first time, the Tour’s digital rights in the U.S. were negotiated concurrently with its linear TV offering. As a result of the new agreement, SVOD platform PGA Tour Live, launched in 2015, will live exclusively on ESPN+ beginning in 2022, dubbed “PGA Tour Live on ESPN+.”

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Rick Anderson, chief media officer with PGA Tour, said the deal gives the pro golf tour the opportunity to expand and “diversify audiences.”

ESPN+ has about 7.6 million subscribers (as of Feb. 3) and the new relationship will provide a significant growth opportunity for golf content distributed digitally.

PGA Tour Live on ESPN+ will include coverage from 36 tournaments — from the Tour’s Hawaii events in January forward — with at least 28 events having four full days of coverage, with four simultaneous live feeds each day. The streaming pact will also feature on-demand replays of events, original golf programs, and edited speed round recaps , among other features.

ESPN+ is available through the ESPN App, (on mobile and connected devices), ESPN.com or ESPNplus.com. It is also available as part of a $9.99 monthly bundle offer that gives subscribers access to Disney+, Hulu (ad-supported), and ESPN+ at a discounted price.

“The Tour and ESPN will work together to bring new and unique content to our fans,” Anderson said.

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MMA Fighter Conor McGregor Helps ESPN+ Generate Record 1 Million PPV Streams

Pay-per-view, boxing and mixed martial arts (MMA) have been partners practically since the beginning of television. But streaming video is still a new frontier.

During Disney’s quarterly financial results, it was disclosed that Irish MMA superstar Conor McGregor helped upstart subscription streaming service ESPN+ generate more than 1 million PPV streams for UFC 246 — a record for a live streaming event that cost $70 to watch over the Internet.

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McGregor defeated Donald Cerrone Jan. 18 in the headline event — in 40 seconds.

Disney said the fight and McGregor contributed to ESPN+ adding 1 million subscribers since the end of the company’s fiscal quarter (ended Dec. 31, 2019) to 7.6 million subs from 6.6. million. Indeed, 500,000 subs signed up just for the fight.

ESPN+, which launched in April 2018, had just 1.4 million subs in January 2019. The service, which costs $4.99 monthly, is also offered as a bundle with Disney+ and Hulu for $9.99 monthly.

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