The Protean identity of ESPN's online network ESPN3 shifts again this week, as the former ESPN360 attempts to distance itself from similar offering WatchESPN. The Worldwide Leader has elected to end the simulcast of sporting events shown on ESPN's cable nets to ESPN3—a service available to 73 million cable subscribers—and instead restrict those online feeds to viewers whose cable provider subscribes to the WatchESPN service (which reaches about half as many viewers).
WatchESPN is the service that allows subscribers to watch ESPN, ESPN2, or ESPNU programming on their computer or mobile device; ESPN is now limiting ESPN3 to "exclusive programming," such as Sri Lankan Premier League cricket which is currently airing on ESPN3.
This is likely to produce a lot of upset college football fans this Saturday, who have grown accustomed to being able to watch live sports simulcast to their computers, Xbox360, or mobile devices; if these subscribers don't have a cable provider offering WatchESPN, they'll have to use an actual TV to watch any games on those three broadcast cable nets. (Even some viewers—like yours truly, whose Comcast subscription includes WatchESPN—can't access the service anymore. It's not clear why I can't.)
ESPN suits are expecting some backlash about this, and this morning they sent out the following memo advising on-air talent on how to deal with the impending shitstorm:
Subject: ESPN3 Simulcast Transition
As you may know, simulcasts of network content are going to be (mostly) removed from E3 beginning today. WatchESPN is the primary digital destination by which to consume content from our linear networks. ESPN3 will continue to focus on exclusive events, with more than 3,500 in the next year alone. See this Front Row story for more: http://frontrow.espn.go.com/2012/08/sample-espn3s-vast-sports-menu-college-football-us-open-cricket/
Because there is a gap between those who have access to ESPN3 (73m) and those who have access to WatchESPN (40m), we're anticipating some negative fan reaction beginning with the first weekend of college football (9/1). We are concerned that talent might be hit on Twitter with questions about the changes. We don't want you to have to get involved, but we do want you to be prepared and know where to direct fans, should you get questions.
We suggest that you respond to fans by saying,
@ESPN_FanCentral can help you with questions about WatchESPN and ESPN3 content.
If you have any questions please feel free to reach out to Amy Phillips or Kristie Chong in Communications.
Thanks so much!
The WatchESPN app was updated this week to reflect some of these changes, and it's apparently shut a lot of viewers out of their programming. It's worth remembering that this isn't some kind of free service; subscribers' cable bills reflect the fees paid for the right to access the ESPN content.