Maybe They’re Not Merely Playing Together?

It wasn’t the biggest sports story of the day, but it was nevertheless intriguing, at least to me.  And considering how I’ve recently been challenged by one of this spaces’ more consistent readers, especiall so.

Per YAHOO! SPORTS’ Jason Owens:

TNT has reached a deal with ESPN to broadcast early-round College Football Playoff games starting with the 2024 season as its NBA rights hang in the balance.

TNT Sports announced the news on Wednesday of a five-year agreement with ESPN through the 2028 season. Per the agreement, TNT will sublicense ESPN’s rights to broadcast two first-round playoff games for each of the next five seasons. TNT will then acquire rights to broadcast two quarterfinal games each year for the remainder of the deal starting with the 2026 season.

The ASSOCIATED PRESS’ Joe Reddy added:

Our strategy has always been to try and round out our portfolio and continue to add the right set of rights whenever there is a possibility,” TNT Sports Chairman and CEO Luis Silberwasser said. “When we look at the landscape and what can really bring in massive levels of audience that is in the popular culture and must watch, the College Football Playoff is at the top of the list.”

ESPN’s $7.8 billion deal with the CFP, which was announced in March, allowed it to sublicense games to other networks. Rosalyn Durant, ESPN’s executive vice president for programming and acquisitions, said TNT approached them after the renewal deal was announced and things progressed from there.

That sort of kumbayah for the sake of clickbait always gets my antennae up.  Especially considering the timing of this announcement, a point VARIETY’s Brian Steinberg drove home:

Even as it faces a full-court press from investors curious to know if it will retain rights to show games from the NBAWarner Bros. Discovery has been courting sports from a different field…The deal surfaces as Warner Bros. Discovery remains enmeshed in critical discussions with the NBA about renewing long-standing media rights.  Warner’s efforts to secure the college-football games were “independent and parallel” to its NBA conversations, according to a person familiar with the matter.

I’m not buying that one iota.  Especially after a lukewarm upfront where WBD’s overall slate paled in comparison to others’, and during a period where more attention was being paid to the future of INSIDE THE NBA and the promotion of unscripted series on TLC and The Food Network than anything TNT, or for that matter TBS, was considering on their actual channels.  Very clearly, the braintrust at WBD see what were once the standardbearer networks, particularly when namesake Ted Turner was still involved, as little more than afterthought portfolio dumps, much like Paramount positions TV Land.

And it’s going on at a time when WBD and Disney are involved in other business alliances, as Steinberg reminds:

The two companies are also partners in the soon-to-launch streaming joint-venture Venu, and the deal will keep the CFP games available for that outlet. 

But Steinberg really caught my attention when he unveiled a few details about who’s really calling the shots in this CFP sublicensing:

ESPN will produce all the games, according to the person familiar with the matter, but TNT Sports will be able to create programming around the CFP games and make its own decisions about talent and some aspects of presentation. But ESPN broadcasters will guide viewers through the games themselves, according to a person familiar with the matter.

If they can play together for something like that, perhaps the gang at INSIDE THE NBA could come to the rescue and support of ESPN’s otherwise tepid and perpetually lower-rated basketball shoulder programming.  With all due respect to the earnest but youthful Malika Andrews, they could use all the help they can get.

So I’m actually wondering if the outright unloading of the once-Turner networks might be something else being as quietly discussed as supposedly this partnership was a few months back when “independent and parallel” conversations supposedly first materialized.

For Disney, it would increase their already Nielsen-authenticated lead as a Media Distributor.  Having carte blanche access to the best of what Disney and Warner Brothers could offer up with movies and the occasional off-network series would likely further bolster that claim. Their strategic braintrust could easily accommodate the scheduling and amortization of titles currently limited to merely FX and significantly smaller linear outlets.

And if Ernie Johnson, the ultimate Turner loyalist, won’t willingly leave the company, if the network leaves him he might actually go along, which would make the worrywarts lamenting the potential end to the show a notch less antsy.

And given how desperate our friend Yosemite Zas is to acheive additional efficiencies so as to assure his massive CEO compensation, even a fire sale price for networks he seems to be determined to diminish might be seen as a lifeline of sorts.

More of a lifeline than an objective observer might even what this sublicensing deal is actually providing to Turner.  The games that TNT will be getting will likely be airing in direct competition with the December 21st games on NBC and FOX.  There’s every reason in the world to believe that the time slots that won’t go head-to-head are ones that ESPN will be warehouseing for their own first-round games.

Maybe there might not be quite as much fire to this smoke.  Maybe there’s more wishful thinking going on here that networks that once were among best in class still might have enough relevance to someone who sees value?  Remember that there wouldn’t have been a cable business, let alone a template successful enough for streamers to now want to resurrect, were it not for the twin towers of ESPN and TBS.  TBS once actually had a pretty darn good college football package of their own, ya know.   And they were even allowed to produce it.

But since my loyal reader has challenged me to be a more of a “futurist”, I’m offering up that if the topic of the T-Nets being offloaded to Disney isn’t already an independent and parallel conversation, perhaps it should be.

If any version of that does come to pass, you read it here first.

Courage…

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