ESPN, UT Open Doors to Longhorn Network for Media, Administration

Just over a week away from making television history, the Longhorn Network hosted an open house on Thursday to debut its facility and show off its flashy, yet temporary, studio for the media, University of Texas student-athletes, coaches, and administrators.

The open house included a tour of the network’s facilities – located just off the northeast outskirts of the UT campus – and featured key members of ESPN and University of Texas administration entertaining questions.

The network, scheduled to launch Aug. 26 at 6 p.m. CT, is still pulling together final pieces in anticipation of going live. Even with just a week to go, ESPN is currently working to secure distribution rights with more television service providers to ensure UT fans across the state and the region will be able to view the network.

“I think there will be a lot of activity between now and the Rice [University] game [on Sept. 3],” said Burke Magnus, SVP of college sports programming for ESPN. “It’s not a great concern right now. I went through the launch of ESPNU a few years ago, so I am battle-scarred from the distribution wars. It comes with the territory.” He added that talks of this nature typically “come down to the wire.”

More than 200 live, exclusive UT events are projected to be broadcast each year, including the football team’s season-opener against Rice on Sept. 3. The network boasts a full lineup of programming including original series, studio shows, and historical programming.

While it will be primarily a sports outfit, Longhorn Network has also dedicated 10% of its on-air schedule to non-athletic programming, giving an opportunity for the campus, the city of Austin, and surrounding areas in the state a chance to be exposed to a broader audience. The concept is not different from the Big Ten Network’s outline of offering approximately 60 hours per year to each member institution to air campus programming.

“There have been blueprints for [Longhorn Network],” said Chris Plonsky, director of women’s athletics at UT. “We did our homework long before we negotiated a deal about a university-branded network. Talking to our colleagues at the Big Ten, they said if you’re really going to go in this direction, really get out in front of [the non-athletic programming] because, while athletics is very used to being televised, quite often the campus is not used to having a platform that’s universal to move its events out to the community.”

It was in December that ESPN, the University of Texas, and IMG College — the school’s licensing/brand manager — inked a 20-year deal to operate the 24-hour television network. Since that date, there has been a tremendous effort to make sure the channel is ready for its September launch. However, the network has also had to battle numerous controversies including airing a live broadcast of a Big 12 conference game. A preliminary plan to offer live coverage of major high school football games within the state was shelved after concerns of potential recruiting advantages surfaced.

Athletic director DeLoss Dodds also said he isn’t concerned with the idea that the network could, as one reporter suggested, “lead to the demise of the Big 12.” Dodds sighted the recent announcement of the launch of Kansas State’s online network as a positive example for other conference affiliates.

“I can see that happening all across the Big 12,” said Dodds, who is in his 30th year as AD. “We’re unique. We’re not like the Big Ten, we’re not like the Pac-12 when it comes to television. The opportunities are just huge for all of the academic institutions and I think as time goes by we’ll all learn how to better use those opportunities. I think in 30 years, the Big 12 will look pretty smart for doing it [this way].”

Magnus addressed some of the controversial topics during a one-on-one session with media saying confidently that there would be a second game broadcast on the network this year (he would not disclose which) and that there was interest in airing high school football highlights on Friday nights on Longhorn Extra, the channel’s nightly answer to SportsCenter.

“I sleep well knowing that Texas has been very open and transparent about this effort from the get-go,” said Magnus. “This did not sneak up on anybody and the opportunity that Texas is taking advantage of with us is something that other institutions in the conference can take advantage of as well.”

While most of the attention has been focused on how the Longhorn Network may impact outside institutions, the staff also faces the challenge of granting viewers unprecedented access to the UT football team

“We shot this morning’s practice as if it were for a live show and we’re still not there yet,” said Stephanie Druley, VP of production. “We are definitely taking their direction in terms of what we can show. We walk sort of a fine line by telling the stories and not giving anything away from practice in terms of strategy and game plan.”

Druley, a member of the ESPN staff since 1990, was up front about being a UT fan and that she’s not in the business of giving away tactical secrets. She also added, that when it comes to offering balanced coverage across the university’s 21 varsity sports, she wouldn’t be pulling any punches.

“In the fall, I’m not going to promise anybody that we’re going to be balanced in terms of what sports we cover. Football drives the train; this is Texas,” she said. “But at the same time, a lot of these other sports have never had the access for their stories being told and they will have the chance to have the spotlight be put on them and we’re going to be doing that on a daily basis.”

Longhorn Network will go live with a two-hour special from the South Mall of the UT campus on Friday, Aug. 26 at 6 p.m. Central. The network’s on-air team of Lowell Galindo, Samantha Steele and Kevin Dunn will be joined on the set by the College GameDay crew featuring Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, Lee Corso, Desmond Howard and Erin Andrews.

Following the debut special, Texas Volleyball opens its 2011 season against Pepperdine in the Burnt Orange Classic live at 8 p.m. on Longhorn Network.

Check back next week for more of Sports Video Group’s in-depth coverage of the Longhorn Network’s upcoming launch!

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