Disney kicks off its streaming future today with ESPN+

Today is the debut of ESPN+, a $4.99 direct-to-consumer subscription video service that offers a little bit of MLB and NHL action with a lot of stuff that you don’t typically see on ESPN when channel surfing. There’s no separate app to download; ESPN+ is part of the redesigned, improved ESPN app that’s also available today on Android, iOS, and connected TV devices. A 7-day free trial is available, and if you sign up by April 18th, that test period will be extended to 30 days.

ESPN+ is overseen by Disney’s BAMTech division, the streaming powerhouse that’s behind video apps for other companies including HBO and WWE. BAMTech will also power Disney’s own family-oriented standalone video service when it launches sometime in 2019. Those two offerings — combined with Disney’s stake in Hulu (which will likely grow to majority ownership under the Fox deal) — make up what the company refers to as its “Direct-to-Consumer and International” segment. That name sounds mighty bland, but this will be a crucial area of Disney going forward as it builds out a full-on Netflix rival with animated hits and superhero blockbusters as the foundation. ESPN+ is literally being described by ESPN executives as “the maiden voyage” of that streaming segment.

But before we get the family classics, we’re starting off with sports. Here’s the most important thing to know: ESPN+ is no replacement for ESPN the cable channel. It’s not supposed to be. The company has made it a point to constantly underline that ESPN+ is meant to complement and augment the network that’s home to SportsCenter and a regular schedule of live games from the major pro leagues. You’ll get one free MLB and NHL game every day whenever they’re in season — yes, subject to blackout rules — with options to add an MLB.TV or NHL.TV package for more money. But that’s not really where ESPN+ is going to hook people.

ESPN+ is really rooting its content in several other pillars: live events (led by Major League Soccer and expanded coverage of niche sports), original episodic programming, exclusive studio shows, and a deep archive selection including E:60 and OJ: Made in America. As examples of the original programming, Kobe Bryant is hosting a basketball analysis show called Detail, and original series Draft Academy gives “a behind-the-scenes look at top prospects leading up to the 2018 NFL Draft.” Sounds like the sort of thing you’d expect.

Starting now, ESPN+ is also the only place you’ll be able watch the entire archive of the company’s prestigious 30 for 30 documentary film series. After a new 30 for 30 airs on cable, pay TV customers will get a small window to watch it on demand, and then it’ll leave for ESPN+. And some films will be reserved exclusively for ESPN+ from the very beginning, like “The Last Days of Knight” entry that’s premiering on the service tomorrow night. Whether it’s a live game, studio series, or original program, ESPN+ content is designated with a gold icon so that everyone can easily see that it’s behind the subscription.

The service promises to deliver “thousands” of hours of live soccer, golf, tennis, rugby, cricket, and a plethora of college sports to subscribers paying their $4.99 every month (or $49.99 if you pay annually). It’s inarguably a pretty good deal for MLS fans who want to watch out-of-market games. For the niche stuff, ESPN claims that ESPN+ is targeted at those fans who have “felt underserved” by mainstream sports offerings. Hear that, thirsty cricket fanatics? Your call has been answered.

On the technical side, ESPN+ video streams in high definition at 60 frames per second, and subscribers can pause, rewind, or restart anything they’re watching live through ESPN+. Five concurrent streams are allowed per ESPN+ account.

If the content selection alone doesn’t fully entice you, maybe the idea of an ad-free ESPN app and website will be enough to sway some people. You’ll get no display ads on ESPN, nor will you see pre-roll or post-roll spots. It’s basically YouTube Red but for ESPN, though you’ll obviously still see commercials when watching live events.

ESPN has completely overhauled its Watch tab, which is now the central location for everything from free highlights to livestreams of the linear ESPN channels (for authenticated TV customers) to ESPN+ programming, which has its own dedicated section. The Watch tab switches over to a black background like Netflix, whereas the other tabs all have a lighter, white theme.

The carousels of content also feel much more in line with the big streaming services; ESPN has always had an enormous amount of video available, but now it’s finally putting in real effort to wrangle everything and surface what it thinks you’ll like based on your team and sport interests. Why should marathoning the company’s deep sports vault be any more difficult than marathoning Stranger Things?

In the beginning, the biggest challenge that ESPN+ will face is convincing people that it’s not just some paid mishmash of stuff that ESPN finds unworthy of its core, traditional channels. ESPN insists that’s not true and that these are events it has never had the ideal platform for. Adding the 30 for 30 archive is definitely one way of helping to prop up the variety bag of live events, and eliminating ads all over ESPN as part of your subscription is nice, too.

What’s next?

ESPN maintains that this is the “first inning” of ESPN+. If and when the Disney / 21st Century Fox deal closes, for example, the service could add a range of content from Fox Sports. Last week, the company told The Verge that ESPN+ could theoretically one day be bundled with Disney’s upcoming service, though stopped short of any kind of direct confirmation. If Disney takes control of Hulu, it’s not hard to envision some combination of all three. Disney covers its properties, ESPN+ does sports, and Hulu is the blanket service for everything else.

What you’re not going to see is the ESPN channel you already know as a standalone streaming service. Not for a long, long time. ESPN still makes the bulk of its revenues from the affiliate fees it charges the Comcasts, Charters, Spectrums, Verizons, and DirecTVs of the world. And declining cable subscriber counts aren’t enough to radically change that world. “We’re going to do everything we can to protect that model,” a company executive said during last week’s media briefing. Again, ESPN+ is being positioned as an additive service and not something that poses any risk of cannibalizing the main network. In fact, you might see cable providers offering ESPN+ as an optional add-on. The company says it’s very interested in pursuing partnerships there.

Even if it’s only the first inning, the launch of ESPN+ and its reception will be interesting to watch. Are there really that many hardcore, “underserved” sports fans who will tack another service onto their list of monthly subscriptions? Will you?

Chris Welch

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