ESPN takes a swing at late-night with social-savvy 'UNITE' -- EXCLUSIVE

The late-night landscape is about to receive a jolt of testosterone. On Aug. 27, ESPN will plant its flag with UNITE, a 60-minute entertainment show geared towards the college-aged male sports fan. Airing each weeknight at midnight on ESPNU, the new program aspires to bring a focus on social media to the sports-viewing experience. “The way that we consume sports television is different than it was 15 years ago — than it was two years ago,” says Yaron Deskalo, UNITE‘s coordinating producer. “Our audience already knows the headlines before they tune in, so they are no longer tuning in at midnight to wait 20 minutes to watch a 45-second highlight. What we need to do to be successful is to find the social conversation in these events, to find that little nugget that will keep people around.”

A specially designed aggregation tool will monitor social trends as three yet-to-be-announced hosts — Deskalo says at least one will be a familiar ESPN face — spread irreverent humor upon sports, viral videos, and pop culture. Yes, there will be guests — athletes, coaches, celebrities — a sofa, and a DJ, but nothing else about the late-night paradigm is sacred. “Our goals are to be different,” says Deskalo. “We want to create something on television that doesn’t exist anywhere else. I think the main way we’ll be able to find out if we’re successful is how viral we are. We don’t want to be a show that necessarily, quote unquote, has a social voice that is inserted in; we really want to be rooted in social.”

Ultimately, UNITE is conventional in the sense that it aspires to be a showcase for star talent, but it’s also keen on developing its own. Expanding upon the network’s Campus Connection program, which harnesses the talents of student journalists across the country, the show’s “School Board” will be a stable of aspiring reporters and storytellers. “We aren’t necessarily looking for the next SportsCenter anchor,” says Deskalo. “We’re looking almost for the next media star, whether they’re graphic designers, musicians, or comedians. Maybe they’re already doing it in their dorm room and getting a million hits on YouTube, but to us, this is the next evolution for them to move into the television environment.”

The show’s launch-date coincides with students heading back to campus, and more importantly, the kick-off of college football season. ESPNU, which is now available in 73 million households, boasts a healthy schedule of prime-time matchup — including an Aug. 30 Tennessee-North Carolina State opener — that will set up UNITE to reach the demo it’s hoping to attract.

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