'Its my life' claims ESPN Star, but will the cable ops play ball?

ESPN Star on Friday unleashed ambitious programming plans for the year, even as cable ops in the country gear themselves to protest against the revised subscription rates of Rs 24.

ESPN MD Manu Sawhney, who addressed a press conference in Mumbai, said a total of 261 days on the channel would be devoted to cricket, of which 82 would feature Indian cricket. However, while DD will grab eyeballs in the beginning of the year with telecasts of international matches played on Indian soil, ESS has to wait till March to cover the Indian tour of the West Indies. The RS 8 hike in subscription rates, consequently, is not being seen too kindly by cable ops who are threatening to take the channel to court over the matter. Sawhney, however, is unperturbed.

Even as the year's plans harp on the massive willow coverage, he says the channel's focus has shifted to other sports like soccer, tennis, Formula 1 and golf. "The Indian viewer is discerning enough not to harp on Indian cricket all the time," he said, when quizzed about the response of cable operators to the hike.

An integrated PR campaign accompanies the new programming initiative, in print as well as on the electronic media. The channel's on-air promos feature its anchors Navjot Sidhu, Naseeruddin Shah, Harsha Bhogle and Geoff Boycott speaking of their passion for sport. The signature tune 'It's my life' runs through the entire campaign, making a pitch for the younger generation sports lovers in the country. ESS is hoping to pack in the viewers with three of the four Grand Slam telecasts, the US Open golf tournament, the Australian Grand Prix and the English Premier League soccer, among other sporting events.

Maintaining that the Indian viewer is going through a period of maturity and currently demands plurality of choice, Sawhney says pay TV is fast becoming the norm in India as in the rest of the world. Lamenting the under declaration of connectivity, Sawhney says cable ops give out only 16 to 20 per cent of the actual subscriber base. The channel has also taken the drastic step of switching off signals to certain cable ops in cases of gross underdeclaration and non-payment, he said.

Sports commentator Harsha Bhogle, who also addressed the media conference, said value added sports channels like ESS are doing yeoman service by showcasing human achievement rather than human failures projected by news channels.

ESS' programmes like Super Selector has already broken the record for the largest show of its genre globally. After netting 316000 participants in the last month of 2001, the show hosted by Naseeruddin Shah has won several awards including the Promax and BDA Asia awards for 2001.

The ESPN School Quiz that has covered two million students in 23 cities in India, will also be aired as a 61 episode programme from April 2002. The ESS programming line up also includes the Indian tour to England in June, the Indian tour to New Zealand in December and the India, England, Sri Lanka triangular in June, Wimbledon, US Open, Australian Open and ATP Masters Series tennis, the UEFA football championship and the World Superbikes Championship.

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