SBJ/November 17 - 23, 2003/Media

‘Playmakers’ might tame plots

The fate of the ESPN drama "Playmakers" could involve a second season with fewer controversial plotlines, according to a network official.

The show, which depicts a fictional pro football team, scored a 1.9 average cable rating, nearly quadrupling what the Tuesday 9 p.m. ET time slot averaged before. A DVD release of the first season is already planned for next fall, and the show succeeded in bringing new viewers and casual sports fans to the network, said Ron Semiao, senior vice president of ESPN Original Entertainment.

But "Playmakers" drew the ire of NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, the NFLPA and club owners because of plotlines they said portrayed NFL players in a negative light. All expressed some variation of the point that it made no sense for a network paying the league an average of $600 million a year in rights fees to turn around and produce a show that trashed professional football.

A DVD release of the first season of "Playmakers" is due out next fall.

"We find it really offensive," said New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft at the NFL owners' meetings earlier this month. "I am surprised they would put it on. They are devaluing the sports fee by putting on a show creating an image that is not accurate. I am surprised a partner would do that."

That sentiment has left ESPN with a choice of dropping the highest-rated series ever launched through its Original Entertainment division, or continuing to anger the league that provides its most valuable programming.

Semiao said ESPN won't decide whether to renew "Playmakers" any time soon, and he conceded that the NFL's displeasure will be a major consideration.

But one possibility he discussed is that the show could return next year in similar form, save some of the characters' outlandish behavior.

"We're talking about it," he said. "Do I think the show could have attracted viewers without some of the more edgy elements? The answer I think is yes. That really comes down to the quality of the writing and the storylines."

Although "Playmakers" was generally well received by critics and was often compared to award-winning HBO dramas, almost every episode depicted some sort of boorish or criminal acts by the characters. They ranged from a wide receiver buying cocaine in the stadium parking lot during halftime — in full pads — to the team owner ordering a running back to lie to prosecutors to cover up domestic violence.

Semiao noted, however, that it stopped showing drug use among players and started revealing more redeeming qualities in them about midway through the 11-episode season. And ratings held steady. The final episode last Tuesday actually attracted the second-most viewers of any, with a 2.2 household rating, or 1.65 million viewers.

Regardless of whether the show returns, ESPN can claim to have developed a bona fide cable hit in a genre where it never ventured before. It averaged a 2.2 rating in the all-important men 18 to 34 demographic. Although only 29 percent the show's viewers were women — just slightly above ESPN's breakdown for all programming — the show did well among women age 18 to 34 and was the third-highest-rated show on cable during its time slot for that group.

ESPN has another scripted drama in the works, one being developed by filmmaker Spike Lee and set at Brooklyn, N.Y., basketball powerhouse Lincoln High School. Lee is currently writing scripts for the show, loosely based on the Lee film "He Got Game" that was also set at the school, but no time frame has been established for when it will air.

Semiao said Lee's show will not affect whether "Playmakers" is renewed, but the ESPN schedule cannot accommodate more than one scripted show at a time. ESPN's 25th anniversary programming, to run from May through September next year, also limits the openings for a scripted drama.

Staff writer Daniel Kaplan contributed to this report.

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ESPN, Football, New England Patriots, NFL

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