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ESPN Slates Reality, Skeins, Game Shows

Pasadena, Calif.— A lineup of original movies, reality series, game shows and documentaries — not unlike a general-entertainment network's schedule — is on ESPN's docket for the 2001-2002 TV season.

Executives from the 24-hour sports network told writers at the recent Television Critics Association tour here that the planned entertainment programming would draw women and casual fans without cannibalizing the network's live sports product or alienating hard-core viewers.

Among the new programming: an original made-for-TV film about former Indiana University head basketball coach Bobby Knight and a sports scavenger hunt-like reality show, said new ESPN programming senior vice president and general manger Mark Shapiro.

As ESPN prepared to add entertainment elements to its programming lineup, ESPNews was gearing up for a major relaunch Sept. 7 that will incorporate parts of the ESPN.com Web site.

The new programming initiatives stem from the company's recently established ESPN Original Entertainment division. The programming is part of the network's "mission" to bring sports and athletes closer to viewers and fans, Shapiro said.

The division, launched last January, has already introduced a number of shows, including the game show 2-Minute Drill
and The Life, a biographical reality series.

"We need to give our core viewers more reasons to stay with ESPN," Shapiro said. "We also need to lure in new and younger viewers."

The entertainment initiative is meant not to supplant ESPN's live-event coverage, but to complement its core sports programming. Kagan Associates sports analyst John Mansell believes the original series and movies can draw more viewers than smaller, live sports events.

"There's a lot of sports out there that are less attractive than good, quality entertainment programming," Mansell said. "The initiative is a hedge for ESPN against increased competition. "The entertainment fare is also a means by which ESPN can curtail escalating rights fees and defray programming costs through multiple runs across its TV platforms.

The Knight movie, A Season On The Brink
— based on the best-selling book of the same name — is slated to premiere March 10, 2002.

Elsewhere, game show Beg, Borrow and B.S.
will feature two four-member teams racing from New York to Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco and completing several sports "challenges" along the way. The winners get tickets to an ESPN championship event, Shapiro said.

"Some examples of the challenges include playing in a prison basketball game, singing the national anthem at a baseball game, riding the Zamboni between periods of a National Hockey League game or being a jockey in a horse race," he explained. "They'll have no money, no food, no transportation whatsoever; just the clothes on their back."

Another reality series, the Chicago-based Wild Onion, will pit contestants in several "urban" contests, such as climbing the Sears Tower. "It's essentially the X Games,
but in a city," Shapiro said.

Also on the schedule: Pardon the Interruption, a daily series fashioned after the popular radio sports-talk format; College SportsCentury, an extension of the popular ESPN Classic series; and The D League, which follows one team that plays in the National Basketball Association's new developmental league.

Shapiro also said ESPN will premiere World's Sexiest Athletes, in which ESPN.com users and ESPN the Magazine
readers will be able to rank the top 10 hottest male and female athletes.

The network has also developed new episodes of its behind-the-scenes documentary show The Season
. Upcoming segments include one recounting golf sensation Tiger Woods' experiences at the U.S. Open and a behind-the-doors look at the Philadelphia 76'ers National run to the NBA Finals.

Though the shows will debut on ESPN, Shapiro said the original fare will also have runs on ESPN2 and ESPN Classic.

"We like to repurpose, reuse and redistribute all of this programming across the ESPN networks," he said. "We've got the aggregate audience out there and we'll certainly look to explore all of these entities across them."

ESPNews will incorporate elements from the Web site as part of its relaunch this September. Eleven months in the making, the new format will combine the best elements of television with the timeliness and depth of the Web site, ESPN senior coordinating producer Mike McQuade said.

The network's hallmark will be an unprecedented, continuous bottom-line sports ticker that will run during national commercial breaks, displaying scores, updates, game statistics and news stories as they happen. McQuade said advertisers have reacted positively to the new ticker, adding that the network hasn't had to make special arrangements with advertisers to compensate for the intrusion.

"I think there was some skepticism at first, but I think that you will find that this may be the direction everyone goes at some point," he said.

Kagan's Mansell said the crawl could actually benefit advertisers by keeping sports fans tuned to the channel during breaks.

In addition, the 24-hour sports-news network will increase its use of ESPN.com news content, stats, polls and analysis from ESPN's radio and magazine assets to augment the on-air product.

McQuade conceded the new format provides more information than most people can process, but said viewers will be able to read what's most important to them.

"We feel that the viewer is devouring sports information and can't get enough, and this service will provide that," he said. He also confirmed that some video from ESPNews will be streamed via ESPN.com, but nothing more substantial than the occasional press conferences and ESPNews analyst reports that are currently available at the online site.

Charter Communications Inc. last month pulled ESPNews in several of its systems over language pertaining to the amount of ESPNews material streamed via ESPN.com.

ESPNews is currently in 23 million homes, up from the 1.5 million at its fall 1996 launch.