Longhorn Launch: Q&A With Burke Magnus, ESPN VP of College Sports Programming

ESPN VP of College Sports Programming Burke Magnus

Since the official announcement of ESPN’s Longhorn Network — which launches today at 6 p.m. CT — came down in January, Burke Magnus, VP of College Sports Programming at ESPN, has been a busy man. In the ensuing months, he has dealt with issues ranging from distribution rights to the ethics of broadcasting high school sports and Big 12 conference games. Following a series of panels at last week’s Longhorn Network Media Preview Event, Magnus spoke one-on-one with reporters to discuss some of the issues and challenges that have come with building a network devoted to University of Texas sports and related activities, the industry’s first university-exclusive television channel.

How is this project, the Longhorn Network, new yet different?
It’s both because of the fact that it’s never been done before for a single institution but it’s similar to some of the other efforts out there — like the team networks, such as YES Network for the Yankees, or the league networks — because they are dedicated to a specific property. So coverage reflects that.

It’s different than coverage you’d get on a national network, whether it’s us or someone else. The interesting part of this is, it’s truly never been done before at the college level, so that’s uncharted territory. It’s something that we’re going to have to be flexible with. I think we’ve shown that flexibility already, but it’s something that we’re going to have to see how it develops and establish trust with coaches and the institution and strike a balance as to what form the coverage takes. That’ll be the unique challenge beyond just the business challenges.

There has been a lot of pushback from other conference members about playing in football games airing live on the network. Can you put a percentage on the likelihood that you will be able to air a second Longhorn football game this season?
There will be one. We’re still working on it as far as a conference game, and I don’t know how long it’s going to take. We have a little bit of time here, and, again, we are very sensitive to the issues raised by [Texas] A&M and that have been echoed by several of the other conference members. We totally buy into the notion that it has to be a win-win. We can’t twist anybody’s arm into doing it, and whoever agrees to do it will do it for the right reasons. We’re playing by the rules.

If Texas A&M chooses to leave the Big 12 and the conference stays with nine schools, would that affect ESPN’s relationship with the conference?
I can’t say. I mean, it’s so speculative right now. I hope that doesn’t happen. I hope A&M sees the merits of Big 12 membership and everything stabilizes, not unlike how it stabilized last summer. To a certain degree, I think the dustup was, at first, generated by the high school issue and then became about the second-football-game issue, and that stuff has melted away. Certainly, as it relates specifically to A&M, the second game is not one that A&M would ever play in. Texas-Texas A&M is not going to be that game. So I think it’s beyond the specific issues, and now it’s sort of an existential thing for them if they can continue in the conference or not. I hope they do.

Have you approached the University of Oklahoma with ideas of a similar network?
We haven’t had any conversation about that recently. We did talk to them, and, as far as I understand, they are still committed to a full investigation of that. I mean, this is a huge proposition, and it’s not something you go into without a lot of work and preparation. So I know that they are doing all of that due diligence and they have a strong national brand, they have a passionate following. The only thing they don’t have from a media perspective is the population base that Texas has.

Your programming plan took a bit of a hit when the NCAA determined that you can’t air high school games on the network this season. Are you optimistic that that may not be a permanent thing and that someday you will show high school games on Longhorn Network?
I completely understand how the recruiting angle of all of this is thorny, to say the least. But I would like to think that, at some point, it could be demonstrated — and I don’t know what form that might take — that it can be done in a way that gets around that problem. It may be something that can’t be unlocked, and, if that’s the case, we don’t do [those] games. We’ve been consistent about that; it’s not a be-all and end-all of the Longhorn Network. It would be a nice complement to what we are doing, but the games are not a critical content piece.

Can you show high school highlights on a Friday night on any news or highlight shows on Longhorn Network?
You know, I don’t know if that’s been fully determined or not. Some of the statements that have been made are conflicting. Some say games, some say content. So I think we need to vet that out.

We would plan to do that. The network is going to have a Bottom Line ticker not unlike other ESPN networks, and I think reporting on high school scores in the context of a news ticker is something we plan to do and I think cannot be put into the same bucket as doing games. The game aspect of it is crystal clear to us.

With high school highlights, would you have to do all high school games as compared to games that just Longhorn recruits are in?
The way I would envision it happening is games of significance. You can correct me on the exact number, but I think there’s something like 1,200 high schools in the state of Texas playing football. [ESPN VP of Production] Stephanie [Druley] would go crazy if I told you we were going to do highlights from 1,200 different schools so we’re fair to everybody. But I think, if you took the top 10 or the top 25 and play it off some form of rankings, again from a news-coverage perspective, I don’t see the issue there.

Earlier this month, the Pac-12 announced a series of regional networks that will debut next year. What do you think of the plan that Commissioner Larry Scott has put together?
I thought that was a smart idea. It’s something that’s different. Because it was done after his media deals, he had the safe position of knowing what was committed to him both financially and from an exposure perspective in his traditional media deals. So I think what he did was pretty novel from the perspective of having these sub-regionals for the two-school clusters that are unique to their conference, and I give him a lot of credit for that.

Does Kansas State’s online network (KStateHD.TV) open up any opportunities between the two schools?
You know, I was intrigued to see that because, to me, if I was another Big 12 school, that’s what I would be doing. What we’re doing here is a unique situation for a lot of reasons, but they have a lot of sports and a lot of teams that could get exposure, and they are now free and clear to do those things in a different way than they’ve ever been done before.

So I was very encouraged that that was happening. Way back in January, I made the comment that we look forward to working with the other schools to figure out a way that the Longhorn Network can benefit them and vice versa. With these things popping up, that, to me, presents that opportunity. Games being played [in Austin], games being played on the road, sports that don’t get a lot of exposure, sharing resources between two entities to get more games on in an efficient way that could be shared, potentially, between outlets — it opens a lot of possibilities. [Kansas State AD] John Currie is a smart guy. He is a young and aggressive thinker, and I was very encouraged to see that.

To what extent is the UT student body going to be involved in Longhorn Network? Obviously, this is a professional operation, but, behind the scenes, will UT communications students get the chance to use this as an educational opportunity? (Note: According to the contract between ESPN and Texas, there will be six UT interns per semester.)
Yes. As much as it was about exposure for their student athletes, it’s also about exposure, in a way, for their students. It’s a great calling card for the School of Communication to say that they have this and that they have access to this. That’s something that we’re going to deliver on because it was important to [UT] President [William] Powers.

Is there an online component to Longhorn Network?
Yes. We’re taking the same approach from an authenticating perspective that we are taking in the new wave of affiliate deals that we’re doing for ESPN. There’s sort of a technology curve behind the distribution agreement that will take time for the streaming aspects and the authentication aspects of it to get it up and running. So, when we get the distribution deals inked, the first thing they will do is launch, obviously, the linear network, but they will have rights to authenticate their video subscribers back to an online version of the network.”

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