Defense collapses

NFL pressure sacks ESPN's 'Playmakers'

NEW YORK — Turns out racy halftime shows aren’t the only thing bugging the National Football League.

The league Wednesday rid itself of at least one showbiz headache with ESPN’s cancellation of “Playmakers” despite solid Nielsen ratings.

“This decision is censorship, pure and simple,” said John Eisendrath, co-exec producer and writer of “Playmakers,” which the NFL excoriated from day one as too harsh in its presentation of pro football’s dark side.

Eisendrath said, “The NFL didn’t like the show so it told ESPN to take it off the air, and ESPN dutifully took it off the air.”

Mark Shapiro, exec VP of programming and production, acknowledged that the series “antagonized our partner,” referring to the NFL, which “raised objections and concerns about the show.”

Decision to cancel “Playmakers” was done in the best interest of ESPN, Shapiro said, pointing to the calls not only from league officials but individual owners, many of whom made their unhappiness clear to ESPN parent the Walt Disney Co. But he added that “the NFL didn’t put a gun to our head. It was ESPN’s decision.”

ESPN and ABC have every intention of renewing their NFL contracts, and they’ll do just about anything to avoid antagonizing the league.

ESPN pays the NFL a record-shattering $600 million a year for the rights to 18 Sunday-night games each season through 2005-06.

Despite the huge license fee, ESPN will make a slight profit on the deal, according to Morgan Stanley, because these 18 games always show up among the highest-rated programs in basic cable, allowing the network to charge advertisers a huge premium for 30-second spots.

ESPN’s sister network ABC pays more than $550 million a year for the rights to 17 “Monday Night Football” games, plus two post-season games a year and a crack at the Super Bowl every three years, also through 2005-06. “MNF” has consistently harvested better Nielsens than any other weekly series on ABC’s primetime schedule over the last few years.

Last gasp

Shapiro said other cable networks approached ESPN about allowing the show to stay in production for another season of 11 weekly hours. But the sports cabler rejected the overtures because moving the show to another network would’ve just poured more salt in the NFL’s raw wounds.

Another option ESPN discussed was to “bring back a watered-down version” of “Playmakers” to ESPN, Shapiro said. “But the show’s fans would’ve seen through that strategy. Our viewers have made it clear that they want gritty, provocative drama — if a show lacks edge, it won’t work on ESPN.”

The 11 episodes of “Playmakers” will be coming out on DVD in April, where Shapiro predicts, with tongue in cheek, that the show “will become a cult classic.”

Shapiro said ESPN is developing pilots for three different scripted series, one of which he hopes to get on the air by the fall. He declined to go into details, except to confirm that Spike Lee is working on the bible of a TV series based on his basketball movie “He Got Game,” which Disney’s Touchstone pictures released in 1998.

But Eisendrath said “ESPN will be under a microscope because the network has set a terrible precedent with ‘Playmakers’ of letting a sports league with financial leverage censor its scripted programming.”