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Q&A WITH ESPN'S GEORGE BODENHEIMER

The Watchword Is Entertainment

July 10, 2002|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's an update of the classic Horatio Alger plot: George Bodenheimer takes a job in the mail room of a daring, young company in his home state of Connecticut in 1981 and 17 years later, he's appointed president of ESPN Inc., having helped make the fledgling network an integral part of the nation's sports culture.

As the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, ESPN has grown mightily under his direction. Among his key recent accomplishments was starting an entertainment arm to produce made-for-TV movies and TV shows, and acquiring the broadcast rights to the NBA for $2.4 billion. ESPN's reach extends to 150 countries. Last month was its most-viewed June. The same was true for ESPN2, which also had its most-viewed quarter.

Bodenheimer, 44, was in Los Angeles for tonight's ESPY awards, which recognize individual and team excellence in sports. The live, 6 p.m. telecast from the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood will be the first on the West Coast after seven years in New York and two in Las Vegas. The ESPYs have raised $24 million for cancer research in conjunction with the V Foundation, named for Jim Valvano, the late basketball coach. Thirty-five awards will be handed out, among them a new one for best disabled athlete.

Early this week, Bodenheimer sat for a wide-ranging interview on his company:

Question: What was behind the decision to move the ESPYs here?

Answer: We like to move our events around at ESPN. The X Games is a good example, and the ESPYs as well. Our presence in Los Angeles has been increasing, what with our ownership by Disney [80% of ESPN is owned by ABC Inc., a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company]. We have an ESPN Zone down in Anaheim, and the ESPYs are here. We like to increase our West Coast presence.

Q: How do you keep the ESPYs distinctive in a landscape filled with so many events, awards and awards shows?

A: We think the ESPYs are unique in terms of being a blend of sports and entertainment. You'll see as many Hollywood stars as you'll see athletes, and that's what we think makes for a unique show. It adds some juice to what we're doing. Many times, athletes say they want to meet and be the entertainers, and the entertainers say their dream is to be a professional athlete. Putting them together makes for an entertaining evening for us.

What we're trying to do is trying not to make this ESPN's night. We're trying to make this an evening for the entire sports industry to celebrate sports.... The V Foundation will again be a significant beneficiary of the evening, and we're proud of that. It seems like cancer has touched every family in America, and ESPN and the V Foundation are working hard to fulfill Jim's vision to do something about it. That's good.

Q: How do you see the ESPYs fitting in with your target audience? And what do you consider to be your target audience?

A: Sports fans generally, in the ages of 18 to 49, is where our bread is buttered, so to speak. We have both younger viewers and older beyond that. That's really our core. It's 70% male and 30% female.

Q: On other networks, there seems to be a trend toward sports-talk shows that feature a lot of yelling and bullying, seemingly catering to a young male audience. Do you see a need to do that? Is there a place for that?

A: At ESPN, we don't feel the need to necessarily copy anybody. We're always trying to evolve what we do. We've been on the air nearly 23 years, and if you look at our history over 23 years, we have evolved our programming quite a bit. We have launched a new group in the company, ESPN Original Entertainment, under the banner of which the film "Season on the Brink" was produced, as well as a hit show we have now, "Pardon the Interruption," with [Washington Post sportswriters] Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon.

Do I think there's room for sports entertainment? Yes, I certainly do, and ESPN is certainly headed in that direction. We certainly don't define that as putting people on the air that yell at each other. We've always thought of it, and we cite this often at ESPN, we take our sports seriously but we don't take ourselves too seriously. That's really become a company mantra that, I think, comes through to our fans. Things like [Monday's] home run hitting contest and [Tuesday's] All-Star game, we live for things like that. Sports is great theater. But at the same time, we like to have fun, and I think people tune to ESPN because they like that attitude and they like to have fun. We try to deliver that.

Q: In the time you've been at ESPN, there have been a number of innovations and a good deal of evolution, the latest being the NBA contract. How does the NBA fit in with your existing NHL contract and with your programming in general?

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