Fielding a Hit Drama

Oct 27, 2003  •  Post A Comment

When ESPN execs found ratings success last year with two original movies of the week, they knew they were ready to take the next step. They wanted a scripted dramatic series on their prime-time schedule.
“We were already getting the hardcore sports fans,” said Ron Semiao, ESPN’s senior VP for original entertainment. “One of our goals was to attract people who like the arena of sports but don’t always want to see a game. We needed to expand our fan base.”
After spending a year looking for the right project, programming chief Mark Shapiro, along with Semiao’s team at ESPN Original Entertainment, came across a script that had been ordered by cable rival FX and put into turnaround. ESPN jumped on it like a goal-line fumble, buying the rights through Imagine Television and giving creator John Eisendrath a full 11-episode order without even shooting the pilot first.
The resulting series, “Playmakers,” delivered the goods, scoring a 2.4 rating in ESPN homes in its commercial-free first airing, nearly nine times the ratings for the comparable Tuesday time slot a year earlier. The series, an ensemble drama centering around a fictional pro football team, continues to average a solid 1.9 for the 9 p.m. (ET) initial showing of each episode, while lifting the overall Tuesday night numbers with repeat airings.
The ratings strength comes in the desired male demos, but Mr. Semiao said, “We’re seeing pretty good numbers on the female end too.”
Mr. Eisendrath, who runs the Toronto-based production from Los Angeles while also executive producing “Alias” for ABC, isn’t surprised by “Playmakers”’ cross-gender appeal.
“The show is not really about football. It’s about guys-the relationships men have with each other, with their colleagues, their bosses, their wives. That’s what interests me as a writer.”
The series, which finished production this month, uses jump-cuts to liven up multiple story lines involving drug use, homosexuality, adultery and back-stabbing team politics.
Because so much of ESPN’s programming is devoted to live sports, Mr. Semiao said, there’s room on the network schedule for only one drama at a time. So “Playmakers” will be competing for renewal with, among other things, a series based on Spike Lee’s “He Got Game,” for which a two-hour pilot is already in the works.
Network: ESPN
Premiere date: Aug. 26, 2003
Studio/production company: ESPN Original Entertainment
Time slot: Tuesday, 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. (ET), with repeats at 10 p.m. and midnight
Cast: Tony Denison, Omar Gooding, Russell Hornsby, Jason Matthew Smith, Marcello Thedford, Chris Wiehl
Credits: John Eisendrath, creator/executive producer; Orly Adelson, executive producer (Toronto); Michael Angeli, co-executive producer; Charles Holland, consulting producer; Scott Brazil, director (pilot)