ESPN is ready for a different breed of football with Playmakers, its first original scripted series, bowing Aug 26 at 9 p.m. ET.
The 11-part drama chronicles a fictional pro football team on and off the field, and is a bold programming departure for ESPN, a channel better known for its playcalling and highlight shows. But after two original movies, the sports net's entertainment unit is ready to make its move.
"Our viewers always say get us closer [to the athletes]," said executive vice president of programming Mark Shapiro. "We had to go fictional to get you there."
The goal is to draw in casual viewers who may not automatically flip on SportsCenter every night, like all good ESPN junkies do.
Early buzz on Playmakers has been good. The show is an ESPN in-house production executive produced by Orly Adelson, Michael Angeli and Alias creator John Eisendrath. "It is edgy, it is provocative, it is gritty, it takes chances," said Shapiro.
To that end, earlier this summer, the net screened Playmakers for focus groups in New York and Philadelphia, but didn't tell them what network would air the show. "They said—unprompted—HBO did it again," Shapiro said.
Playmakers doesn't go quite as far as an HBO show though. The language and content will be milder than ESPN's original movie on Bobby Knight, which had a cleaned-up version simulcast on ESPN2.
ESPN is trying to maximize the show's exposure airing it Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET, 10 p.m. and then again at midnight after SportsCenter. That way, Shapiro notes, it plays at 9 p.m. in every time zone except Mountain. ESPN HD will also simulcast the show in high definition.
Work is already underway for a second ESPN original though. Filmmaker Spike Lee is producing a pilot for a series on pro basketball.