Taking a page out of ESPN’s playbook

Book publishers would be wise to study how ESPN is reinventing broadcast television

If you missed this recent BusinessWeek article about ESPN you owe it to yourself to go back and read it. ESPN is so much more than just a sports network and their brilliant strategy offers plenty of lessons for publishers. Here’s just one important indicator of their success: While the average network earns about 20 cents per subscriber each month ESPN is paid $5.13. That’s more than 25 times the average!

Pay for One, Access All

Of course ESPN isn’t just one channel. It’s a family of channels (e.g., ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, ESPN Classic, etc.) If you’re a subscriber to any one of those channels you’re able to watch all of them online via the free WatchESPN app. That means no matter where I am I can catch anything on the ESPN network on my tablet, even those channels I don’t get via cable.

Think about that for a moment. That would be like buying one ebook but getting access to the entire series it’s part of. That’s unheard of in book publishing. It’s also pretty unusual in network broadcasting but ESPN is ahead of its time. When I stream those channels on WatchESPN they’re commercial-free; a static logo appears during commercial breaks. That’s because ESPN hasn’t sold the advertising rights to the streaming broadcasts…yet. They’re willing to stream everything now, even without advertising income, to build a nice solid base to lure those advertisers to the table. Smart.

Building Talent Franchises

The article talks about Bill Simmons and how the network has turned him into a superstar. So when Simmons had the idea to create Grantland he brought the concept to ESPN to see what they thought. Rather than watching Simmons go off on his own and create something that might compete with them they launched Grantland with him using their ESPN Internet Ventures arm.

When this scenario plays out in the publishing world it usually ends with the author taking the idea somewhere else, often to a self-publisher. It’s clear ESPN is willing to take more risks than the typical book publisher, even if it might lead to cannibalization. As the saying goes though, it’s better to eat your own young than to let someone else do it.

Memorable Quotes

This article is loaded with plenty of interesting observations but my favorite quotes are the following:

I have friends who work at Google, and they are beating their chests. ESPN, they never feel like they are at the mountaintop. They’re always thinking they can do something bigger.

He stresses ESPN’s multi-platform advantage: print, radio, broadcast television, cable television, Internet, mobile applications. To date there are no competitors who have assets in all those media.

I don’t think you’ll find a lot of hubris here. Or complacency. I don’t think there’s any sense of trying to protect what we’ve got. We’re going to try new things.

Meanwhile, most book publishers today seem content with high growth rates (off small bases) for what’s nothing more than quick-and-dirty print-to-e conversions. There’s certainly not much happening in the multi-format, multi-channel world ESPN is pioneering.

Think this advice only applies to the world of television? If so, look at how Rosenfeld Media is reinventing and repositioning itself for the future.

What’s your opinion? Do we need to think more like ESPN? And can you name any publishers who are breaking away from the pack and creating some really innovative, multi-channel products?

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