SBJ/March 19 - 25, 2007/SBJ In Depth

ESPN still committed to original entertainment unit

ESPN’s original entertainment arm is considering launching a late-night comedy series and an animated series, though both programs are early in their development phase and wouldn’t make it to the screen until 2008 at the earliest.

Gossip show “ESPN Hollywood” proved to be a bust
for ESPN Original Entertainment.

Details are sparse, since both projects are in their embryonic stages. But both would carry a heavy sports focus and both would provide further proof that ESPN still is committed to its ESPN Original Entertainment division.

“ESPN has tried a lot of things over the years,” said Ron Semiao, senior vice president, ESPN Original Entertainment. “We have not been risk averse.”

ESPN has tried a comedic talk show before, with “Mohr Sports,” hosted by comedian Jay Mohr launching in April 2002. The weekly show was canceled after five months.

But ESPN has gained confidence in its ability to produce comedy through its “This Is SportsCenter” spots. It also believes such a show would work better in a late-night slot, rather than the late afternoon spot Mohr had (5 p.m. ET Tuesdays), Semiao said.

EOE also is considering producing some sort of animated show, based on the success other networks have had producing animated series for adult audiences, such as Fox’s “The Simpsons” and Comedy Central’s “South Park.”

ESPN has been dabbling in animation for the past year. In November, it rolled out four Wieden & Kennedy-created animated spots to promote this season’s NBA coverage.

All of this seems a far cry from January 2006. That’s when ESPN aired “ESPN Hollywood” for the final time, a decision that came just three months after former programming head Mark Shapiro left Bristol for Six Flags. “ESPN Hollywood” was a gossip show billed as a sports version of “Access Hollywood” or “Entertainment Tonight.”

“ESPN Hollywood” was the latest in a string of high-profile missteps. ESPN’s fictional drama series “Playmakers” drew flack from the NFL for its edgy story lines. With Shapiro gone and “ESPN Hollywood” canceled, many observers felt entertainment programming would be scrapped from ESPN’s schedule.

Instead, ESPN decided to stay away from purely fictional dramas, such as “Playmakers” and “Tilt.” The division is now more focused on scripted series that look back at a moment in sports, such as the upcoming “The Bronx Is Burning” and “Ruffian.”

“I don’t think it was a mistake to do some of those things,” Semiao said. “We are doing more sports certainly as opposed to entertainment because that’s what we are. We are in the business of telling sports stories.”

It also remains committed to the lifestyle aspects of “ESPN Hollywood,” evidenced by its new series “After Dark,” which broadcasts from parties associated with big sporting events. It launched in February from the Super Bowl in Miami. And it plans another effort from the ESPYs, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary this summer.

One of the reasons ESPN remains committed to EOE is Bristol’s desire to own sports content and events. One of EOE’s most successful projects is the X Games competitions. Next year, it hopes to roll out two new X Games-branded events centered on the popular Moto X.

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