Shapiro's Ahead of the Game at ESPN
He's young, he's brash, and some say he's ready for a bigger stage
By Ben Grossman -- Broadcasting & Cable, 7/31/2005 8:00:00 PM
When watching ESPN, you never have to wait long to find out what's looming. From constant “coming-up” graphics during games and news shows to Pardon the Interruption's on-screen rundown of topics, the cable giant is built for the attention span of today's young adult male.
That's why Mark Shapiro is perfect for the job. ESPN's 35-year-old programming whiz has vaulted up the ladder at the Disney-owned sports channel by constantly focusing—some might say obsessing—on what's coming next. It's a trait that has helped him shoot through the ESPN ranks at breakneck pace.
“The guy is always moving around and thinking about the next thing,” says IMG Broadcasting Senior VP/Managing Director Sandy Montag, who negotiates with Shapiro as an agent for such clients as John Madden. “Even at dinner, he is already thinking about what's for dessert. We had dinner recently, and my wife said after, 'Is he ever off?'”
Shapiro's rise at ESPN has been nothing short of meteoric: He joined as a production assistant in 1993 and, just eight years later, took over as senior VP and general manager of programming at the age of 31. Now executive VP of programming and production, he has helped evolve ESPN into an entertainment outlet, complete with original movies and serialized dramas.
With Comcast currently working to remake its Outdoor Life Network into a more mainstream sports channel that could compete with ESPN, Shapiro needs to be on top of his game. “You always have to spend time looking in the rear-view mirror,” he says of the possible competition, “figuring out just how close those images appear.”
Shapiro has succeeded thus far thanks to a willingness to experiment, something he wants to continue to instill in ESPN's culture. He challenges his entire staff to constantly e-mail him new concepts. “I want risk-takers,” he says. “Throw it out there, take a chance. If we fail, we fail.”
ESPN Executive VP/Executive Editor John Walsh says Shapiro's commitment to idea generation is one of the best aspects of his leadership. “He doesn't care if ideas come from the switchboard operator or the president of Disney,” Walsh says. “He's constantly putting together forums and mechanisms to come up with the next great idea and always gives credit to whoever came up with it.”
Shapiro, who gets five or six pitches every day (mostly movies), is even considering recent suggestions from staffers to bring back both the demolition derby and roller derby. “We're going to try them out,” he says. “They might stink, but you never know. Poker should show you everything. [The idea] came from a junior guy on my staff who works on the NHL. Is anything hotter than poker right now?”
A willingness to throw Hail Mary passes takes a certain brashness, which those around Shapiro say he has—in spades. “Sure, he's cocky,” says Montag. “But he's cocky without being arrogant, if that makes sense. He's confident and aggressive and competitive. If you don't know him, he could definitely come across as arrogant.”
Shapiro, who splits time between offices in Bristol, Conn., and New York, isn't concerned about failure. “I don't worry about my job,” he says. “If I can't get it done, get rid of me.”
And if he got fired tomorrow? “I'd be in a new job in one week,” he says with a shrug.
Rising industry status
Shapiro's status in the industry rose even further last year when he was offered a programming job at ABC entertainment. He passed on it, dissatisfied with the proposed reporting structure. (He wanted to be the top programming exec at the network).
“It was very flattering and a great opportunity,” he says. “The structure just wasn't something that would work for me. And before you leave what is arguably the most successful network in television, it better be the right move, especially if you are going to move your family 3,000 miles. And it wasn't right.”
But ABC was in Shapiro's future anyway, as he assumed control of programming and marketing at ABC Sports earlier this summer. When not being pitched new shows and movies, his days are dominated by the integration of ESPN with ABC Sports. “This is a no-brainer,” he says of the merger. “It should have happened 10 years ago.”
He now has around 2,500 people reporting to him and admits the stress can be overwhelming. “You work as hard as you can and can't seem to get your head above water,” he says. “My only outlet is my family these days.”
Yet Walsh says Shapiro has another outlet: the band U2. True to character, Shapiro follows the band obsessively. “A U2 song came on, and I asked Mark if he liked them,” Walsh says. “And he goes, 'Yeah, look, I have like 440 U2 songs on my iPod.'”
Contemplating the next step?
But while Shapiro's evolving of the ESPN brand continues (he's launching three shows this month and wants to add a late-night talk show, a “Letterman-type show with a sports theme,” he says), some wonder if he is already contemplating his next step.
“I think he's past a Hollywood entertainment-programming job,” says IMG's Montag. “When he goes, it will be to run an entire network or media company. He's ready.”
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