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The Sporting Life

Who's in charge? ESPN. It may look like the NFL called the shots on Playmakers, but looks are deceiving. "If we were under the thumb of the NFL, we never would have launched Playmakers," says Mark Shapiro, the 34-year-old wunderkind who heads ESPN originals. "We did what was best for us."

Bravado aside, ESPN buckled under pressure from the NFL and canned a pro-football drama that was a success by its own benchmark. That's not the normal trajectory of a successful show. According to Shapiro, though, original development marches on—just more carefully. He hopes to have a new drama on the air this fall—and he's taking lessons from Playmakers.

The first, he says, is balance. "We can keep a more watchful eye on the balance between provocative storylines and characters' redeeming values and virtues." ESPN always maintained that Playmakers
was a fictional show about a fake league. But the NFL may have felt the show's wife-beaters, drug abusers, and controlling team owners were too "ripped from the headlines," to borrow Law & Order's credo.

Going forward, ESPN will communicate with the sports leagues and teams about its projects—with a proviso: It won't seek the NBA's approval for a basketball show or send scripts to the NHL. "We don't need anyone to tell us how to do sports," says Shapiro.

In fact, he has loaded his scorecard with controversial fare. Upcoming original movies, like Pete Rose biopic Hustle
and 3: The Dale Earnhardt Story, starring Barry Pepper as the late NASCAR legend, are sure to ruffle some feathers. Among the dramatic pilots in the works: The Fix, about college gambling, and Spike Lee's script about high-school basketball stars, based on his book He Got Game.

Playmakers, though, hit a nerve with ESPN's biggest business partner. The net's TV deal with the NFL ends in the 2005-06 season, and it's important to keep the league happy. Shapiro isn't worried, insisting Playmakers
didn't jeopardize the partnership: "We'll be in business for years to come."

ESPN also has TV rights to college football and the NBA. Both are locked in for the foreseeable future.

creator John Eisendrath doesn't resent ESPN for canceling the show. He knows the network faced a tough business dilemma. What galls him is that the NFL never gave the show a chance.

"The NFL had no interest in seeing the character arcs in any dimensional way," laments Eisendrath, who also works on ABC's Alias. "They are not in the business of creating dramas. Nothing is going to be dramatic if nothing dramatic happens."

Not that ESPN has fully severed ties with the show. Fans can still catch repeats late at night on ESPN2 and ads for the first season run on DVDs.

Shapiro is undaunted. "We're going to continue to bring in edgy programming."