Basketball fans, like enthusiasts in many realms, consume content in chunks. Evenings on end, zoning out in front of a screen, watching every little scrap and story.
But 62 of those stories? Over 20 hours? Via an app?
For that you’ll need to look to ESPN, which, with an ambitious new hoops-themed project, has either fashioned the future of digital distribution or offered a glimpse at its potentially chaotic undoing.
“I don’t know that anyone’s done anything like this before,” said Connor Schell, ESPN’s executive vice president of content. “It’s hugely ambitious.”
The project Schell refers to is “Basketball: A Love Story.” In what amounts to a trial balloon for a new digital model — or at the very least the pressing of an existing model to new degrees of volume and choice — ESPN and the Peabody-winning director Dan Klores have made a documentary series that encompasses dozens of episodes on a wide set of roundball topics across three centuries. Then they’ve bundled them all in to one place and said to consumers, essentially, “do with these what you will.”
Since Sept. 18, viewers with the ESPN app have been able to stream these 62 episodes in whatever number or combination they please, adding to the feeling that in today’s content age, anyone with a good WiFi connection can access television on any conceivable topic, if only they know where to look.
In a wear-a-belt-in-addition-to-your-suspenders move, ESPN will also air the episodes on its linear network beginning Tuesday night, showing two sections of two hours each over five successive Tuesdays.
So those interested in the UCLA Bruins dynasty or Dirk Nowitzki’s signature move; the economic backdrop of the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird rivalry or the 1972 U.S.-U.S.S.R. Olympic game; LeBron James’ infamous decision to join the Miami Heat or the integration of Texas college basketball; the ceiling-shattering career of Tennessee coach Pat Summitt or the colorful dysfunction of the defunct ABA will find their appetites sated (or is it their palates overwhelmed?) by what ESPN has produced. Episodes can run from five minutes to more than half an hour.
It may be one of the biggest tests to-date of the limits of the era of peak content. And with the simultaneous app and network viewings, executives say, they can give consumers the kind of mix-and-match choice inherent to this new age — while at the same time taking a curated approach in which time slots and sequence matter as much as they did in 1992.
Call it a nature-and-nurture study, but for content. The hope is that consumers ideally watch in both venues, with one feeding interest in the other. But if they don’t, ESPN will still be able to see which platform is more popular and draw conclusions about why.
“It made sense to do both,” Schell said of the app and linear approaches. “Each episode is well constructed individually and stands on its own. But there’s also power in the collective.”
“Basketball: A Love Story” is part of a stable of content that ESPN and parent company Disney hope can stem the tide of people turning away from traditional cable programming. (The app is also one of the digital homes of ESPN+, the company’s streaming service, which includes thousands of hours of original sports programming. Disney is also launching its own streaming service to compete with Netflix and other Silicon Valley players.) Disney chief Robert Iger gave notes on the project, Klores said (he suggested less animation for several segments) after watching part of the piece with Klores at the former’s home screening room in Los Angeles.
Klores conducted 165 interviews over four years, all in cooperation with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and the league. The result is in fact much longer than what’s seen on screen — about 550 hours of footage in total. (That which isn’t used will be entered into an archive, to be shared in an as-yet undetermined manner between Klores, ESPN and the NBA.)
One reason the project stretches on so long is that Klores didn’t make a chronological history of basketball — “that would have felt tedious,” the director said. Instead, he tells a much wider assortment of stories on topics that he felt were notable in some way.
Because “Basketball” doesn’t tell that linear story, it can basically be watched in any order, since episodes are connected by the only the loosest tissue, if they’re bonded at all. Would you go from George Gervin’s pursuit of a scoring title to the mechanics of Golden State Warriors’ passing to Marquette coach Al McGuire’s NCAA title to the 1996 women’s Olympic team? Or watch them in a different sequence?
The post-Cold War emergence of Balkan ballers to the ephemeral greatness of Bill Walton to the historical centrality of little men like Muggsy Bogues? Or skip that last one to focus on Bobby Knight and the emergence of Title IX (not the same episode)?
This range, of course, could pose a bit of problem, since it means after finishing one episode there’s no reason to then watch another. “Basketball: A Love Story” is a bold rebuff to the primary conceit of binge-viewing, which, as see in shows like “The Handmaid’s Tale,” holds that the best way to attract consumers is by offering a highly serialized format in which viewers are so compelled by the end of one episode they can’t wait to start the next.
Not coincidentally, ESPN is also the network that toyed with format via “O.J.: Made In America,” the eight-hour docuseries that was also conceived as a cohesive whole — so much so it won the Oscar for best documentary film. Executives are reluctant to closely compare the projects. But they allow that plans for “Basketball” — which was greenlit in 2006 by then-ESPN chief John Skipper and shelved because of budget concerns before being given a fresh go-ahead in 2014 — were emboldened by the success of the hybrid “O.J."
“It’s one large project about basketball, but each of the pieces are individual stories,” John Lasker, ESPN”s vice president of digital media programming, said of “Basketball.”
Added Schell: There’s a “narrative arc in each of the stories and then a journey of two hours and then a weaving together for the totality of the 20 hours.”
The series also poses questions of content overload — just because there is infinite space for television programming, does that mean there’s bottomless interest in it? Schell said he wasn’t concerned about the issue of viewers being overwhelmed by the choices or skipping episodes. Even if they did, he said, it didn’t matter because “Basketball” is designed as a historical document of sorts. “We want a lot of people to watch on the app and a lot of people to watch on television, but we also hope people find it years from now,” he said. “This is a living history of the game.”
Surprisingly, it’s only the notion of the full 20-hour film that Klores was really excited about, an example of how the new era of content can be a boon for creators even when they’re indifferent toward some of the forms it yields.
“I still write in longhand, and my three boys in high school and college look at me like ‘what are you doing?’ ” Klores said, laughing. “I don’t understand a lot of this stuff, and to be honest I don’t really care about it. What [ESPN executives] told me is that ‘this works because we can distribute it three different ways. It’s 62 different movies, and it’s five different nights, and the whole thing is also a film in its entirety.’ And I listened and said, ‘Whatever you’ve got to do. I just want to make the movie.”
The lack of binge-ability with “Basketball” has not been a challenge in the three weeks since it became available on the app, executives say.
“What we’ve seen is people going through and snacking,” Lasker said. “People will watch episode 1 or episode 62 or another episode and then bounce around. I think that’s what makes it special.”
Klores admits the idea still takes some getting used to. “Would I prefer that people watch like I like watched Ken Burns’ “Vietnam” — from start to finish? Of course I would. I think some viewers like I do. But I’m also 68 years old. Maybe I’m out of touch with how people want to watch now.”