ESPN wants to build out a new late-night presence on ESPN2, but probably won't return to scripted programming anytime soon, according to senior network executives.
ESPN2 is hoping to launch its hour-long late-night entry, ESPN Timeline, next April, but the ideal plan is to eventually expand to a 90-120-minute late-night block. ESPN has been soliciting and taking pitches for months for a more comedic-oriented potential companion show.
"It is something we would like to do," says John Skipper, ESPN executive VP of content.
But the first step would be to get Timeline up and running. The network has no format as of yet, but foresees a multi-person chatfest about the latest in sports.
ESPN execs envision a panel of personalities, ranging from ESPN anchors to possibly a comedian well-versed in the sports world—along the lines of Frank Caliendo of Fox Sports and TBS.
Once Timeline is up and running, ESPN would like to add a more comedic-slanted show to follow it. A sports version of The Daily Show has been discussed.
"That's the holy grail," says ESPN senior vice president of content development and enterprises Keith Clinkscales. "But I don't know what it will be; it depends on talent. We remain open to different opportunities."
One direction the network most likely isn't headed is back into the scripted world, after high-profile misses such as Playmakers and Tilt.
One reason is the sheer cost and low success rate of scripted shows, an understandable concern given the $1.1 billion in programming costs the network pays to air a few months of Monday Night Football every year.
But there is also the Playmakers lesson. The network yanked the football-themed scripted series after it didn't sit well with the major partner that is the NFL. ESPN execs realize that on the entertainment side (as opposed to the news side for shows like SportsCenter), there is no reason to rock the boat.
"We have excellent partners, and we have to think about that in the creation of what we are doing," Clinkscales acknowledges.
Instead the network is continuing to push its documentary and film side, which it feels is more in line with its refocusing on core sports.
"When we are thinking about storytelling, we want that as close to the games as possible, and the documentaries let us go there," Clinkscales says. "We want to distinguish ourselves in that area."