Cable TV: ESPN

Football, 'Playmekers' make news

In reality and fiction, football was good to ESPN in 2003.

Ratings for the sports cabler’s Sunday night National Football League games are up more than 9% from last year and the Nov. 16 Dallas Cowboys-New England Patriots match drew the highest audience for any cable program last year.

The network upped its original programming, most noticeably with the premiere of drama series “Playmakers,” a behind-the-scenes look at a pro football team. Part “Any Given Sunday,” part NFL Films, “Playmakers” certainly gave ESPN lots of publicity, though some of it the net could’ve done without.

It was no secret that NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue was unhappy about how his league was being portrayed in the skein — drug use, hookers, spousal abuse — and called Disney chairman Michael Eisner to complain. After the conversation, ESPN stopped running promos for “Playmakers” during NFL games.

On the hardcourt, the network began covering the National Basketball Assn. with partner ABC and took center court at Wimbledon in July.

Sister station ESPN2 got into the morning news game with “Cold Pizza,” which debuted in October.

“By mixing proven winners with innovative new concepts, we broadened our audience and achieved our eighth straight quarter of ratings growth,” says Mark Shapiro, ESPN exec VP, programming and production.

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