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Will ESPN play hardball?

Renewing 'Playmakers' will infuriate NFL bosses

ESPN has begun embracing showbiz in a big way, commissioning original movies, scripted series and even an “American Idol”-type reality show called “Dream Job.”

But showbiz can play unwelcome tricks: ESPN is about to get clobbered as roundly as CBS did last week when it bowed to conservative pressure by dropping the miniseries “The Reagans.”

For ESPN, the center of controversy is an audience-generating weekly hourlong drama called “Playmakers,” the first scripted series ever commissioned by the network.

It was unprecedented for the cabler to portray the off-the-field lives of their erstwhile heroes as out-and-out thugs — even under the guise of fiction. NFL players have blasted the show, accusing the cabler of taunting them for airing “Playmakers” on the one night of the week when they’re free from practice and have time to watch TV.

While ESPN is keeping mum about the fate of “Playmakers,” the betting is that the network will not go forward with it beyond the first season.

The cabler would be dropping “Playmakers” to serve a higher cause: keeping ESPN’s partnership with the NFL from deteriorating so badly that the league would retaliate when it comes time to renegotiate its contract with ESPN and its sister network ABC — an agreement that expires after the 2005 season.

A second-season renewal of “Playmakers” in defiance of the NFL’s anger could poison the relationship between the league and ESPN, launching the two antagonists on an expensive collision course in 2005.

“Playmakers” takes some of its inspiration from Oliver Stone’s movie “Any Given Sunday.” Every week viewers are guided through an eye-opening tour of the dark side of professional football. The show concludes its first season of 11 episodes on Nov. 11.

Talk about flawed characters: One player beats his wife, one steals pain pills meant for a terminally ill child, and one solicits a team staffer to make sure his pregnant girlfriend follows through on her abortion.

National Football League owners and officials of the NFL Players Assn. have reacted like snarling defensive tackles converging on a nervous running back. Gene Upshaw, executive director of the players association, even called the show racist because many of the most-offensive characters are black.

The decision to cancel will cause ESPN more than a little agony because the show is scoring some of the best young-male demographics on the network. For example, “Playmakers” has never fallen below a 2 rating among men 18 to 34 in the nine weeks since the show premiered on Aug. 26.

In its most recent week, the show captured 329,640 in the narrower category of men 18 to 24, helped no doubt by a guest appearance from Snoop Dogg. More men 18 to 24 watched that episode than any other “Playmakers” hour to date.

In overall household ratings, “Playmakers” averaged a 1.85 rating over the first nine episodes, a humongous improvement when compared to the network’s average rating in the time period in 2002 — a lowly 0.4. On the strength of that Nielsen performance, most cable networks would not hesitate to hand off a renewal to the show.

The NFL doesn’t have to remind ABC and ESPN that at least three cable networks with broadcast parents would love to get a crack at buying the Sunday-night NFL package of weekly regular-season games: USA (soon to be owned by NBC), Spike (Viacom) and FX (Fox).

Losing that package to a higher bidder would be traumatic for ESPN, which used its exorbitantly priced deal for exclusive Sunday-night NFL games — $600 million a year beginning in 1998, $4.8 billion over eight years — as leverage to force cable operators to pay the network 20% increases each year on multiyear contracts.

Driven by these increases, ESPN will pocket about $1.86 billion from cable-operator license fees in 2003, more than double the amount of the next wealthiest network, TNT, which rakes in $822 million, according to Kagan World Media.

But if “Playmakers” disappears, what happens to ESPN’s dreams of showbiz glory? If the network is perceived as caving in to NFL pressure, it could end up getting grief from Spike Lee, who’s working on the bible for a TV series based on his movie “He Got Game” (1998).

Ron Semaio, senior VP of programming for ESPN Original Entertainment, says Lee plans to focus on the main character in the movie, Jesus Shuttlesworth, who was a star high-school player facing some of the seamier aspects of college-basketball recruitment. Lee’s script for the series will flash forward a few years and pick up Shuttlesworth as an NBA player.

“If the NFL successfully drops the hammer on an edgy, entertaining show like ‘Playmakers,’ ” says David Carter, a principal in the L.A.-based Sports Business Group, “then the NBA will follow suit” if it’s unhappy with Lee’s presentation of a pro-basketball player’s life.

Similarly, Michael Tollin and Brian Robbins (“Radio,” “Arli$$”) may be less than enthusiastic about continuing to develop a series project they have in the works for ESPN. Like Lee, Tollin and Robbins would lose any chance at pocketing a big rerun payday if their series gets cancelled after one season, even if the shows are pulling lots of young-male viewers.

Semaio makes it clear that scripted series and movies will continue to be a part of ESPN’s programming strategy because these shows “are important for our future growth. We want to draw more casual sports fans to the network, even some women for a change.”

“One thing we don’t have to worry about is the rabid fan,” he says. “With all of our live games and sports news and information, he’s already with us.”

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