Biopics went out the door with Shapiro

Between 2002 and 2005, ESPN wanted to get in on the Hollywood action.

The network commissioned scripted biopics of sports figures featuring actors like Brian Dennehy, Tom Berenger and Tom Sizemore, and scheduled dramatic series on pro football (“Playmakers”) and championship poker (“Tilt”).

Mark Shapiro, aggressive and ambitious, was the guiding executive VP behind these projects. But he left ESPN early last year (for a top job at Six Flags), and the network’s showbiz aspirations appear to have departed with him.

It’s not that Shapiro’s successors John Skipper, executive VP of content, and David Berson, exec VP of programming planning and development, wouldn’t love to keep churning out lots of scripted movies and series, but the money is not as plentiful as it was a few years ago.

ESPN’s bedrock programming is live sports events, and the network has had to pony up record dollars to grab “NFL Monday Night Football” ($8.8 billion for eight years), renew Major League Baseball ($2.37 billion for eight years) and get back into NASCAR (more than $1.5 billion for eight years). And talks are in the final stages for renewal of the National Basketball Assn. contract; the main issue is the size of the increase over the $2.4 billion ESPN pays under the current deal, which expires in 2008.

While these vast amounts of money were flying out the door, ESPN’s ratings took a nosedive in the first quarter, plunging by 31% in total primetime viewers and by 28% in adults 18-49, which dropped the network to 15th place (from fourth a year ago).

“In a sign of the times, scripted entertainment has become a luxury item at ESPN,” says David Carter, director of the Sports Business Institute at USC. “When push comes to shove, ESPN has to give its fans the red meat they crave, and that’s live events.”

At ESPN’s elaborate upfront presentation to media buyers in a Broadway theater May 15, Skipper boasted that for a 17-day period this spring, ESPN has scheduled 128 live events.

Nobody at ESPN is saying officially that scripted entertainment is way down on the priority list. Berson says ESPN has some scripted movies and series in early development, but declined to be specific.

Except for “The Bronx Is Burning,” an eight-hour mini greenlit last year about the famously dysfunctional 1977 World Series champion New York Yankees, scripted projects were off the agenda at the upfront. Instead, ESPN talked about a new magazine show modeled on “60 Minutes” called “ESPN Reports” and a feature-length docu on Bobby Valentine’s life as manager of a Japanese baseball team.

Of course, a docu on Valentine will cost a fraction of the average $5-million production budget required by a scripted movie on ESPN. The last movie put together by Shapiro before he ankled, a horserace drama called “Ruffian,” with Sam Shepard, went over budget because of the cost of filming the various races on location in Louisiana. “The Bronx Is Burning,” now in post-production, will cost more than $12 million.

The problem with high-budget movies and minis dealing with sports themes is that they tend to be rejected by TV outlets in countries outside the U.S., meaning that it’ll take them a long time to get their money back — if ever — through runs on ESPN, sell-through DVD and eventual repeats on ESPN Classic. (Before its appearance on ESPN, “Ruffian” will actually premiere in primetime on ESPN’s sister network ABC on June 9, the Saturday that ABC presents live coverage of the Belmont Stakes.)

So original movies are not the best way for ESPN to keep its ledgers darkened with black ink, and even greater losses will be slapped against ESPN’s two scripted series, “Playmakers” in 2003 and “Tilt” in 2005, mainly because both shows got pinkslips in their rookie year.

The cancellation of “Tilt” was a no-brainer, because the show never found much of an audience. But “Playmakers” made an impact, and was genuinely popular. “ESPN did a good job on it, and it worked well with viewers,” says Mike Trager, sports consultant and former head of Clear Channel TV. “But it ran into a political crunch.”

Trager is referring to the anger of NFL owners, who hated the depiction of some of the football-player characters as party animals, drug users, and wife beaters. The threat of losing its contract to carry NFL games on cable caused ESPN to cancel “Playmakers” after 12 episodes.

So the next original drama series on ESPN may not be coming along anytime soon. As Carter puts it: “The ‘S’ in ESPN stands for ‘sports,’ not ‘scripted.’ “

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