8/2/11 - the birth of espn

In today's excerpt - in 1978, Bill Rasmussen, just fired as the communication manager of the Hartford Whalers, concocted the idea of starting a cable station dedicated to Connecticut sports programing and calling it ESP:

"Rasmussen knew virtually nothing about the cable TV business, but he wasn't alone: in 1978, there were just over 14 million homes receiving cable—less than 20 percent of all TV households. HBO had gone on the air in 1975 but offered limited programming and signed off at midnight. A year later, Ted Turner uplinked his then-piddling Atlanta UHF outlet to a satellite, thereby creating the country's first 'SuperStation,' but one that delivered more Braves games than original programming. The next year, televangelist Pat Robertson launched his 700 Club on satellite, and in 1978, despite the fact that HBO reached only 1.5 million homes, Viacom fired up its slow-blooming imitation, Showtime. ...

"Beginning in the summer of 1978, Bill, his son Scott, [friend and insurance man Ed] Eagan, and Eagan's buddy Bob Beyus, who owned a video production company, sought the backing of cable operators and potential investors for a new sports channel. They had originally wanted to name it SPN, the Sports Programming Network, but something called the Satellite Programming Network had already laid claim to those letters. Bill knew they'd have a tough time filling hours with only Connecticut sports and argued that they'd have to include some entertainment programming. Thus was it born: ESP, the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network.

"On June 26, presentations began. ESP invited twelve representatives of Connecticut's cable operators to a rented conference room at United Cable in Plainville, Connecticut. Only five showed up, and those mostly out of deference to Bill Rasmussen's contacts in the industry rather than out of breathless anticipation of the new enterprise. Skeptically, they listened to far-fetched proposals about delivering Connecticut collegiate sporting events, amateur sports, the Whalers, and 'entertainment' programming to cable operators via an interstate network. The reaction was a double shot of bad news: implausible, the cable crowd said, and too costly.

"Undaunted that the presentation bombed, the quartet of entrepreneurs pushed ahead, holding a press conference days later to spread the word. Of the thirty-five reporters invited to attend the grand announcement of ESP, a mere four attended, and none of them were particularly impressed. Neither was Beyus, who had thought it complete folly to hold a press conference without any contracts, but was outvoted by his partners. Immediately following the press conference, he officially flew the coop. Still undeterred, the Rasmussens and Eagan formally incorporated ESP Network on July 14, 1978, for a fee of $91.

"BILL RASMUSSEN: When Scott and I talked with Jim Dover over at United Cable, he told us about something new coming along called satellite communication and said it was going to be the wave of the future. A couple guys over at United helped us try to figure out what the satellites did, but nobody really had any idea. Then someone said that RCA was doing a lot of this stuff in Europe and we should talk to those guys. We called in the middle of the afternoon, and a young guy named Al Parinello answered the phone. ... Al wanted to get together and asked us where we were located, but we didn't have offices. We asked Jim Dover at United Cable if we could rent the conference room there and he said, 'Give me a $20 bill.' So that was the rent, and Al came and showed us all these diagrams of satellites and how this happens, and how that happens.

"AL PARINELLO: We're talking pewter ashtrays, a big oak table, and china dishes that lunch was served on. Bill said, 'This is our headquarters.' Little did I know that he had rented this beautiful room. My first question was 'What kind of programming are we talking about?' And the answer was we're talking about regional sports programming—UConn sporting events, and so forth. I was confused. I'm like, 'Bill, you need to understand that when you utilize satellite communications, your signal is going to go up to a geosynchronous satellite orbiting 24,300 miles above the equator. And because of that, anybody with an earth station anywhere can get your programming. So it seems to me that you shouldn't just be talking about Connecticut sports, why not think in terms of doing something a little bigger?' That was the moment I saw Bill and Scott look at each other like I had just hit a nerve."


James Andrew Miller


Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN


Little, Brown and Company


Copyright 2011 by Jimmy the Writer, Inc.


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