Is Playmakers Off to the Showers?
Football drama is a hit on ESPN but not with the NFL
By Allison Romano -- Broadcasting & Cable, 11/23/2003 7:00:00 PM
ESPN's controversial pro-football drama Playmakers closed out its freshman season Nov. 11 with strong marks. But a winning record hasn't guaranteed this playmaker a new deal, probably because of the controversy itself.
Meanwhile, ESPN is pushing ahead with more feel-good original programming, like reality show Dream Job and ESPN25, a series of specials on the past 25 years in sports.
It is unlikely that any show will cause the same commotion as Playmakers. ESPN's first original drama explored hot-button sports issues like steroid use, players' off-field behavior and overbearing team owners. It also dramatized thornier issues: drug use, womanizing, the treatment of gay players.
The finale nabbed a 2.2 household rating, giving the series a respectable 1.9 average. And the show was a solid draw with this fall's elusive 18- to 34-year-old male viewers, according to Nielsen.
But NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue called the show "a rather gross mischaracterization of our sport." Some players and coaches also ripped it. One advertiser, Gatorade, found on the sidelines of real pro-football games, pulled its ads from the show at the end of the season. ESPN says no other advertisers followed.
That kind of controversy might have helped the series but not the network. Have we mentioned that ABC and ESPN's fat contract with the NFL ends after the 2005-06 season? Or that ESPN's Sunday Night Football game is the network's No. 1 show?
The sports net has always maintained that Playmakers is entirely fictional, entertainment not documentary. Playmakers is no more about life in the NFL than "General Hospital is about life in a hospital," says Ron Semaio, senior VP of programming for ESPN's Original Entertainment (EOE).
For now, though, ESPN hasn't decided on the show's future. "The heart and soul of our network is live events and sports news and information," Semaio says. "We could never run more than one scripted show at a time."
Other networks, though, are quick to commit to future seasons when they find a hit. FX renewed Nip/Tuck before the freshman season ended; HBO said cop drama The Wire will get a third season even though production won't start until next year.
But Semaio says ESPN is a different breed of network. "We're dabbling in scripted, but EOE programming is less than 6% of our program hours."
Meanwhile, filmmaker Spike Lee is preparing a two-hour pilot for a scripted series based on his basketball movie, He Got Game, but with new characters from the same Coney Island high school. The setting will be high school sports, but the show could ruffle NCAA and NBA feathers, especially if it delves into overzealous recruiters or shady deals with agents.
ESPN's next big original arrives in February. Dream Job is an American Idol-like search for a new SportsCenter anchor. ESPN has whittled 9,000 submissions down to 200 regional finalists and is partnering with Wendy's on a promotion to win a slot in the competition.
To toast the net's 25th anniversary, ESPN25 will air 30 hours of specials from May to late September, in the Tuesday-night time slot Playmakers occupied.
Another new effort, ESPN2 sports and lifestyle morning show Cold Pizza has limped along in the ratings since its debut in late October. Most mornings, it musters a rating of 0.1 or 0.2, in line with the network's typical morning ratings. ESPN intends to be patient with Cold Pizza, Semaio says. "Anything we do live is better than recycling stuff out of the library."
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