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Published November 10, 2003
When talking about Mark Shapiro, it's hard to avoid hyperbole. To say that no one his age has more power in sports television is hardly a stretch. Most talked about individual in sports media? Yes, Shapiro probably fits that bill, too. Most controversial? Without a doubt.
When a sketch of the square-jawed 33-year-old graced the far right front-page column of The Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago, it unofficially marked Shapiro's ascension from golden boy producer to big-time media player in the public eye. Ruffling countless feathers along the way, especially those of the sports world's old guard, Shapiro has rewritten the rules of what ESPN is supposed to be. Seeking a broader audience of casual sports fans, he's spearheaded the efforts of ESPN Original Entertainment, venturing into scripted and lifestyle-oriented programming.
On the live event front, he's been aggressive when it comes to both acquiring programming and getting the best possible deals.
When Shapiro was named ESPN's senior vice president of programming in the fall of 2001 (he added production to his title a year later), ESPN was mired in a two-year slump of declining ratings. Since then, average total-day ratings are up year over year for eight straight quarters.
His track record is difficult to knock, but that hasn't stopped critics from voicing their discontent over Shapiro's style and, more recently, his choices.
When Rush Limbaugh resigned after making racially charged remarks on "Sunday NFL Countdown," it was Shapiro, who hired Limbaugh, who took much of the heat. And nothing has gotten Shapiro, and ESPN itself, in more hot water than "Playmakers," the scripted drama that depicts an ethically challenged professional football team.
Don't look to Shapiro for apologies.
"Say what you want about 'Playmakers,'" he said. "It's testing at a 70 percent approval rating and is highest with African-Americans and Hispanics." The show is ESPN's highest-rated program overall behind only college football and NFL games, and has succeeded in bringing new audiences to the network, the exact goal from the beginning.
Not that ratings are the only measure of success. Shapiro explained that programming decisions are made around the three R's: ratings, revenue and what's the right thing to do.
Shapiro and ESPN worried about the right thing to do? Some may roll their eyes, but he is quick to point to "Outside the Lines Nightly," which was developed in the name of bringing probing journalism to sports television on a regular basis, bumping the profitable and higher-rated "Baseball Tonight" out of the midnight timeslot.
"Have we made it ratings at all cost?" he asked. "No. We have 65 sports on ESPN. Of those, there are at least 10 that don't pull a rating that merits being on the network. But we keep them on to serve the fans."
While "Playmakers" and the Limbaugh hiring are what drew Shapiro the most heat in the public sphere, it's his allegedly cutthroat negotiating style that's most talked about in sports media circles. Shapiro said it's a reputation that is undeserved.
"It's totally inaccurate to say I'm not about compromise," he said. Putting his image in perspective, he realizes that when he does his job well, he's not always going to win friends.
"My job is to cut the best possible deal for ESPN," he said. "I'm relatively new to the scene, and at the same time I've been very aggressive on all fronts."
Even Shapiro's critics generally recognize that he's served his employer's interests well. And his supporters say they recognize that his confident style rubs some the wrong way.
"If you believe in Mark," said Sandy Montag, a senior vice president of IMG who represents John Madden and several top ESPN personalities, "you say he's creative, aggressive and competent. If you're down on him, you'd say he's brash, combative and a know-it-all."
Montag, who calls Shapiro a friend, said the challenge Shapiro faces is that he's often negotiating with people who've been doing their jobs for 20 years longer than he has.