ESPN gets less sports-centered

Cabler to broaden its field with more series, telepix

Less hockey and baseball. More original movies and series.

That’s one big equation on the mind of Mark Shapiro, executive VP of programming and production for ESPN, who’s gung ho about broadening the audience for ESPN by reaching beyond the stereotypical potbellied sports nut, stretched out in his undershirt on a Barcalounger with a can of beer in one hand and a remote in the other.

ESPN and ESPN2 aimed the National Hockey League games it carried from 1999 through 2004 squarely at this viewer, but Shapiro says the NHL’s ratings had fallen to such a depressed state by the 2003-04 season (a labor dispute obliterated the 2004-05 schedule) that he won’t pay cash license fees anymore.

And Shapiro is negotiating a new contract with Major League Baseball but says, “I’m not interested in carrying five games a week unless I get full network exclusivity,” a concession baseball seems unwilling to grant except for the traditional ESPN game of the week on Sunday night.

And that’s where scripted programming comes in. Shapiro says one of the reasons ESPN’s scripted series about Las Vegas poker players “Tilt” failed to find an audience earlier this year is that the only free night not saturated with live sports commitments was Thursday, where, at 9 p.m., the show had to go up against such strong series as “CSI” on CBS, “Will & Grace” on NBC and “Extreme Makeover” on ABC. Against those odds, “Tilt” never really had a chance.

By contrast, ESPN’s other scripted series “Playmakers,” a warts-and-all look at the members of a fictional pro-football team, fared much better with audiences in 2003’s late summer and fall because the network was able to carve out a weekly primetime slot on Tuesday, where the competition was not so fierce.

Despite solid ratings, “Playmakers” got a reluctant cancellation notice after its first 13-episode season, falling victim to the hostility of the National Football League, most of whose owners hated the portrayal of some athletes as drug users, wife beaters and other unsavory types.

The mistakes ESPN made in shepherding “Playmakers” and “Tilt” onto the schedule have only reinforced Shapiro’s goal of coming up with one or two hit series in the next few years and with at least four highly exploitable original movies a year, starting in 2006.

The man who created “Playmakers,” John Eisendrath, is working on an untitled drama pilot set in the world of boxing, which is slated as ESPN’s next series.

Shapiro says he has 30 movie projects in the works, with two in production: “Four Minutes,” a docudrama about Roger Bannister, the first athlete to run the four-minute mile, and “The Code Breakers,” a script based on the 1951 West Point scandal in which the school expelled 83 Army cadets, including most of the football team, for cheating.

Sports-media consultant Kevin O’Malley applauds Shapiro’s push to get ESPN into scripted movies and series.

“These shows are already getting more women and younger men to watch the network,” O’Malley says.

Getting different kinds of people to watch ESPN, says Neal Pilson, a sports consultant and former president of CBS Sports, will help to pump up the network’s advertising revenues.

Kagan Research says ESPN already harvests more ad revenues than any other cable network, projecting a record $869.2 million in 2005, a 9% gain over those of last year.

ESPN should look at the example of MTV, says David Carter, a principal with the Los Angeles-based Sports Business Group.

“MTV became an integral part of the pop culture,” he says, “by morphing from a musicvideo network to a channel carrying a wide range of programming.”

However, Mike Trager, former head of Clear Channel Entertainment, says ESPN “has to walk a fine line between reaching out for new viewers and alienating its core audience.”

Or, as another sports analyst puts it: “Women may watch an episode of one of the series, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to abandon Lifetime to become devotees of the NFL and the NBA on ESPN.”

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