The Los Angeles Times from Los Angeles, California on January 24, 2004 · Page 42
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The Los Angeles Times from Los Angeles, California · Page 42

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Saturday, January 24, 2004
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SP_D_13_D13_LA_1_01-24-04_sa_1_CMYK 2004:01:23:21:23:03 SPORTS SATURDAY,JANUARY24,2004 D13 LOSANGELESTIMES Sunday,January 25, 2004 For home delivery, call 1-800-LA TIMES, or pick up a copy atyour newsstand. 03ED014 MOREONSUNDAY Sunday Calendar PartI A KeenEye Writer Rachel Abramowitz profiles Nina Jacobson, head of Buena Vista’s film division. This Disney executive had a big year with her signature movies like “Freaky Friday.” Sunday Calendar PartII Going Solo? Stepping away from the longtime group that bears his name, Dave Matthews releases a solo album and goes on tour with a different set of musicians. L ORI S HEPLER Los Angeles Times last year, not with the smart and confident 33-year-old as head of programming. Sitting at a long conference table, sipping yet another coffee, Shapiro says: “In this business, you have to be willing to gamble.” The network’s majority owner, Walt Disney Co., seems to agree. With the NFL and other leagues commanding multimillions for broadcast rights, Disney chairman Michael Eisner told the Hollywood Reporter: “ESPN has got to get off the heroin of professional rights, just like HBO got off the heroin of movie rights with shows like ‘Sex in the City.’” So while the future of “Play- makers” remains in limbo — a decision is promised this spring —ESPN has forged ahead with a morning talk show, “Cold Pizza,” aproject Shapiro fusses over, visiting the set to make suggestions. Movies about Pete Rose and Dale Earnhardt are in the works. Some fans might shudder. Has ESPN forsaken games? Where will the aficionado turn for afternoon tractor pulls and NBA replays at 3 a.m.? Shapiro wants these viewers to pause and take a deep breath. He wants them to understand something about the new-style programming. “It’s 6% of our schedule,” he says. “That’s it.” The network still broadcasts every major sport and has a new deal with Wimbledon, he says. It still has bowling and billiards and bass fishing, and added more than 625 hours of major events’ programming last year. Further assurance comes from George Bodenheimer, president of ESPN and its sister ABC Sports. He says: “ESPN is and always will be about games and sports news. That’s what got us 24 years down the road.” Still, in the culture of sport, so enamored with its records and halls of fame, any hint of change can be threatening. As David Carter, a sports business consultant who teaches at USC, puts it, “certainly Bodenheimer has given [Shapiro] enough rope to hang himself.” It is ironic Shapiro must defend his commitment to sports given that the Chicago native grew up bugging his father for tickets to Notre Dame games, keeping a radio under the covers so he could listen to “Monday Night Football” past bedtime. As a teenager, he announced games for his high school’s closed-circuit television station, then enrolled at the University of Iowa for its broadcast curriculum. “I knew what I wanted to do and I wasn’t shy about it,” he says. In 1993, after college and a stint at NBC Sports, Shapiro landed as a production assistant for Jim Rome’s nightly show on ESPN2. He appeared at Rome’s dressing room door. “You don’t know me,” he said. “But can I ask you a question?” He wanted to know how Rome juggled daily radio and television shows. He wanted to know whether he could help researching guests and preparing questions. “Knock yourself out, kid,” Rome told him. The next day, Shapiro delivered what Rome calls “this perfectly crafted research package.” Within six months, Shapiro was producer. “He had that intangible,” Rome says. “A guy who really goes after it.” Only 23, Shapiro established himself as imaginative and tireless, booking the best guests and ensuring the right questions got asked. In six years’ time, he moved to “Up Close,” then “SportsCentury,” then to head of ESPN Classic. Mention of this rapid rise causes him to squirm. “I’ve been at this for 12 years,” he protests. But Shapiro’syouth dovetails neatly into a quality that observers often cite when assessing his career. “Sometimes experience is a bit of an anchor, it can wed you to the past,” says Neal Pilson, former head of CBS Sports who has served as a consultant to ESPN. “Mark is not afraid to take risks and change the texture and make bold decisions.” Fans got a hint of this when his “SportsCentury” series ranked Secretariat among the top 50 athletes of the century, above Mickey Mantle and Pete Sampras, who asked: “How could a horse be ahead of me?” By 2001, Shapiro had a ranking of his own — among the Hollywood Reporter’s “35 Promising Executives on the Rise.” The following year he was promoted to executive vice president for programming and production over the entire network. The new job came with a mandate: higher ratings. Shapiro insists he has done nothing more than surround himself with talent. But listen to his story about exercising on a treadmill one day with CNN’s “Crossfire” on television. “It was a great, meaty, juicy political subject and they were going toe-to-toe,” he says. “I remember thinking we should create a show that would allow for spirited debate in the sports arena.” Washington Post columnists Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon came to mind because they often called Shapiro to debate segments that had appeared on ESPN. Two years ago, they were hired for “Pardon the Interruption,” the half-hour gabfest that has become a runaway daytime hit. Still, it is a stretch to go from sports talk to developing feature-length films. Shapiro falls back on a sports television axiom: The secret to broadcasting games is to tell a story, to give viewers something to root for. Are movies so different? “Of course there are a lot of elements — where is the arc and is it compelling, where’s the subplot,” he says. “But I believe I know how to tell good stories and I have a knack and instinct for good television.” This confidence leads him to criticize without hesitation, listing the deficiencies of a certain producer, describing how a former on-air personality avoided asking tough questions. He dishes out praise in equal amounts. Rome calls it “a very clear vision of the future.” Not everyone in Hollywood agrees. Although “The Junction Boys” — the story of Bear Bryant’s early days coaching football — was a success, critics panned the Bobby Knight movie “A Season on the Brink.” On another project, the nightly talk show “Mohr Sports,” Shapiro butted heads with comedian Jay Mohr. Though Mohr declined to comment for this article, he reportedly complained that ESPN failed to promote the show and micromanaged its production. Shapiro counters: “When I added my two cents, they shut me down and told me I didn’t know anything about comedy.” Canceledfor low ratings, Mohr appeared on “The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn” and referred to Shapiro with an expletive, saying they “certainly didn’t see eye-to-eye.” Hollywood producer Gavin Polone had a similar complaint working with ESPN on an idea he described as a “West Wing”-type show about a college athletic department. “It was really evident early on that they wanted to appeal to the lowest common denominator by coming up with a sensationalistic tone,” Polone said. “You start getting notes from these executives, and they were making the show stupid.” As producer of HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Gilmore Girls” on the WB, Polone is not impressed by ratings for shows such as “Playmakers,” which drew 1.7 million viewers in its first season, or quadruple what had been the audience for Tuesday night broadcasts of college basketball and other ESPN shows. “The ratings would have been there for any scripted show on ESPN because there’s a real market for it,” he says. The naysayers have spoken loudly enough that, in private, some of Shapiro’s supporters have wondered whether his job wasin jeopardy. “Those questions are absurd,” Bodenheimer says. “Mark has taken some of the heat, but ...no one operates in a vacuum here.” Thehigh ratings — which include a recent influx of female viewers ages 18-34 who watch “Playmakers” ��� cannot be underestimated. They give ESPN ammunition for charging higher fees to cable and satellite companies. They provide leverage when the network’s NHL contract comes up for renewal this year. And they have cemented Shapiro’s reputation in the business of sport. Experts look beyond the flap with Limbaugh, who resigned after proclaiming that Donovan McNabb of the Philadelphia Eagles was overrated because the media favor black quarterbacks. The “Playmakers” controversy is similarly expected to pass, as the network has softened its stance in recent weeks. “He’s earned his stripes,” Carter says of Shapiro. “He made some mistakes, but at the end of the day, he keeps reaching out and trying to innovate.” The thing is, Shapiro dismisses the “innovator” tag as quickly as he shrugs off harsh words from critics. Maybe it’s humility — despite his position, he is clearly uncomfortable being the focal point for all the network has accomplished in the last two years. He wouldn’t let a photographer take his picture for this article. Besides, he sees ESPN’s grand experiment as an obvious choice. After more than an hour at the conference table, eager to get on with his day, he tries to explain by way of his childhood, the Bears and Walter Payton, the Cubs at Wrigley Field. “Sports was the epicenter,” he says. “It played such a role in my life.” His mind works this way, moving past scores and statistics, drawing rapid-fire associations with Muhammad Ali and the Vietnam War, Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color barrier. “I loved how sports tied to society,” he says. “How they mirrored society.” This is why Shapiro will not back down. From early on, when he looked at games, he saw drama and ethos. Mythology, even. All the things that make for agood movie. ESPN Executive Takes Programming Risks [ Shapiro, from Page D1 ] ESPN SHOW BUSINESS: Mark Shapiro’s experiments at ESPN include, from the top, the controversial series “Playmakers,” and the made-for-TV movies “The Junction Boys,” starring Tom Berenger, and “A Season on the Brink,” starring Brian Dennehy.

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