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ESPN is now in the business of binge-able content thanks to O.J. Simpson

It’s hard to binge ESPN.

Those four-hour marathons of SportsCenter at 3 a.m. are more insomnia fodder than engaging viewing material. A live sporting event loses its appeal outside of highlights and the final score once it is no longer live. So how does a company known for covering live events adapt to a binge TV culture where any time can be primetime?

Following one continuous story is central to binging, and that’s something ESPN has been lacking.

That’s where O.J. Made in America comes in. Directed by Ezra Edelman, Made in America is ESPN’s first ever mini-series, a sprawling five-part, nearly eight-hour epic which analyzes the life of O.J. Simpson prior to the June 1994 car chase that attracted a World Cup-sized 94 million viewers, and the aftermath. The first part of the documentary aired on ABC on June 11, and following the airing of the second part on ESPN, the network did something it had never done before: made the remaining three parts available to stream on WatchESPN, its cable-authenticated streaming service, prior to the live TV airings.

“It’s a learning experience for us,” said Lori LeBas, Senior Vice President of Business Operations and Strategy, Sales and Marketing at ESPN in an exclusive interview with Digital Trends. “We decided we would use this O.J. series as a way to learn about what our fans like about content that might not be live. Are they actually going to consume it?”

Here’s how ESPN made the story of O.J. a binge experience.

Lesson 1: Own the binge

On May 14, a month and a half before Lebron James helped bring home the Cleveland Cavaliers’ first NBA title ever, ESPN aired Believeland, a 30 for 30 documentary about the resiliency of a city defined by sports failure. Less than a month later, Believeland, like 68 of ESPN’s 70 30 for 30 documentaries, made its way to Netflix, and not WatchESPN. “We know there is more and more of an interest and more and more research that shows people are consuming content in a binge-able way and through platforms that are not WatchESPN,” Lebas told DT.

“There were a lot of things about the O.J. series that leant themselves to providing this content as part of WatchESPN experience that we haven’t really had before,” said Lebas. The central component was OJ: Made in America‘s nearly eight-hour runtime. Following one continuous story is central to binging, allowing for the continuation of a singular narrative. That’s something ESPN has been lacking.

Watching ESPN’s 30 for 30 story Bad Boys, about the 1980’s Detroit Pistons, followed by 96 minutes of what one might consider the Bad Boy Pistons of college, the 1990s Michigan Wolverines in the 30 for 30 Fab Five, might offer similar thematic threads, but it just doesn’t inspire the same binging devotion as three hours of Walter White trying to make and sell meth.

O.J. Made in America is giving us insight … that we really haven’t had before with just live events.”

“We wanted to give people an awareness that ESPN not only has live events, but we also have an amazing collection of content that can be consumed in a more binge-able way,” Lebas said about the O.J. project. “[O.J. Made in America] is giving us insight into content consumption and fan interest that we really haven’t had before with just live events.” People were definitely aware of WatchESPN’s binge potential once O.J.: Made in America hit screens. More than 410,000 unique visitors streamed the first three parts on WatchESPN, with 84 percent watching it on demand, instead of live, according to data provided by ESPN.

Lesson 2: Cable is still the way

Even though WatchESPN is almost four years old, ESPN has not cut the cord — just trimmed it. The network has lost seven million cable subscribers between 2013-2015, but subscriber fees still represent the lion’s share of ESPN’s revenue. So, even when Disney made history by offering ESPN to cord-cutters for the first time on Dish Networks’ Sling TV in early 2015, the company wouldn’t allow the channel to be used in the new beta Sling TV package that allows multiple streams at a time from a single account. Allowing a household to enjoy ESPN in multiple parts of the home from one account is a luxury Disney wishes to keep exclusive to cable, for now.

O.J. Made in America
M. Osterreicher/Courtesy of ESPN Films

“We purposely put [O.J.: Made in America] behind the paywall so you need to be authenticated to be able to gain access to that content,” Lebas said, Currently, WatchESPN can only be accessed by cable and satellite subscribers. Lebas describes it as an “insider play” for pay TV subscribers saying, “If you subscribe you get something other people might not get access to.” The large streaming audience for the O.J. mini-series on WatchESPN did not seem to significantly cannibalize any of the TV viewership, with the five parts averaging more than 1.9 million viewers during their live TV airings. That’s more than a 60 percent increase over the average viewership of the previous eight episodes of this season of 30 for 30.

Lesson 3: TV should be living, not just live

“What we’re also learning about with the O.J. series is how else can we package other content together … Maybe it’s a Michigan Day, so what kind of content do we have in our library that we could package together to give fans five hours of content about the university of Michigan,” Lebas said.

ESPN quickly learned the difference between “live TV” and “living TV.”

Ever since O.J.: Made in America was screened in its entirety at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in January, discussions have sprouted across the country over the cultural impact of the verdict, and even whether this could be the first TV show to win an Oscar. ESPN quickly learned the difference between “live TV” and “living TV,” i.e. a show that has staying power beyond its initial airing. A “living TV show” has a topic (or topics) and execution so polarizing the show transcends the confines of a time slot and springboards arresting conversations throughout popular culture.

Binge-worthy shows are in demand, in part, because they’re always on demand; able to be consumed whenever, which helps keep them in the zeitgeist for a longer period. The most popular ones also need to feel perpetually current, offering content that brings a fresh take on issues that continue to resonate throughout generations. HBO’s The Jinx and Netflix’s Making A Murderer are great examples.

This idea of “living TV” like O.J. Made in America seems to be showing in ESPN’s marketing of its other 30 for 30 documentaries. But ESPN is taking the idea even further. Following Cleveland’s first NBA championship win this summer, the ESPN Films crew will go back to Cleveland to reshoot a new ending for Believeland, which ESPN which re-aired on June 30.

With HBO’s standalone streaming service, HBO Now only garnering 800,000 subscribers in its first 10 months, it might not make business sense for ESPN to cut the cable cord just yet. Maybe in five years, as Disney CEO Bob Iger proposed, severing ties will make more sense. Nevertheless, the “worldwide leader in sports” is now in the business of making binge-able content thanks to O.J. Made in America. With ESPN potentially “expanding the capabilities to offer video on demand as part of the WatchESPN app later this summer,” according to Lebas, it’s safe to say the network could be a major player in the ever-expanding binge culture soon enough.

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