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NFL gets its way; ESPN drops show

Friday, February 06, 2004

By Chuck Finder, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The coin toss, just like the decision to renew or not was characterized one month ago, apparently came up tails.

The rookie show "Playmakers" was canceled by ESPN officials, who four weeks earlier told a gathering of television critics in Pasadena, Calif., it was a 50-50 proposition that it would return to its fall cable lineup the controversial series about a greatly troubled professional football team.

Timing didn't have an impact on the Wednesday afternoon announcement, EPSN executive vice president Mark Shapiro told The Los Angeles Times. But it sure made for an intriguing coincidence. The decision came 28 days after that news conference with TV critics and barely 72 hours after NFL officials were embarrassed in front of a billion-plus viewers by a Janet Jackson strip act, a halftime show with lyrics and gyrations less than suitable for a young audience and a security breakdown that allowed a world-famous streaker to cavort on the Super Bowl field.

The 11-week "Playmakers" already had offended the NFL because of its portrayals of drug and sexual issues dominating the fictional Cougars. It so bothered league officials that commissioner Paul Tagliabue telephoned the chief at parent Disney, Michael Eisner, and soon after promotional commercials for the show stopped appearing amid ESPN's NFL Sunday game broadcasts.

Shapiro, who oversees the network's 2-year-old move to add original entertainment series to its sports-specific inventory, called the dramatic series a dramatic success -- its 1.6 million viewers included a greater female audience than normal and more than quadruple its usual Tuesday night audience.

He told the Los Angeles Times that the decision was made shortly before the Super Bowl.

"It's our opinion that we're not in the business of antagonizing our partner, even though we've done it, and continued to carry it over the NFL's objections," Shapiro added. "To bring it back would be rubbing it in our partner's faces."

And that seems to indicate that Entertainment won't prevail in the network a quarter-century ago founded as the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network. The all-sports channel fought valiantly its first five-plus years of existence before it finally landed the plum of sports programming: a weekly NFL game. ESPN and ABC were the highest-paying partners in the last go-round of broadcasting rights negotiations, paying $9.2 billion over eight years for their lucrative and important Sunday and Monday games.

TV critic Rob Owen wrote in the Jan. 8 Post-Gazette how the cable network planned to make a decision on "Playmakers" by March 1, but that it appeared the show would meet its demise. Semaio back then, like Shapiro this week, was quoted as saying how "we are not in the business of antagonizing our partners."

Shapiro told The New York Times: "Not for a minute did [the league] imply that the future of our partnership would be based on this program. ESPN is intoxicating for the NFL. We need to live with each other."

The NFL's response to the cancellation: "Now we can all move on."

NOTE -- Tony Kornheiser is leaving his ESPN Radio show, heard locally on WEAE-AM, as of March 26 to devote more time to his Washington Post column and his ESPN television show, "Pardon the Interruption."


Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1724.

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