Love of Sports Leads to ESPN

Sep 6, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Those who work in television programming often say they fell in love with television at an early age, but those who work at sports networks tend to have been sports fans first and foremost.

Mark Shapiro, ESPN executive VP of programming and production, knew early what direction he wanted his career to take. He grew up listening to “Monday Night Football” on a radio hidden under his pillow, and by high school he was producing and hosting his own cable access sports show, “Titan Sports,” named after his Glenville, Ill., high school football team.

After high school, Mr. Shapiro attended the University of Iowa because of its communications program. There he applied for an internship at NBC Sports and landed the gig. He was perhaps the only applicant with demo reels from a pre-collegiate, self-produced sports show.

For the rest of his time in college, he balanced school and his NBC internship. He worked as a runner for the network, then as a logger, then as a gofer, then as a production assistant. “I knew grades were important, but experience was paramount,” Mr. Shapiro said.

Upon graduation, Mr. Shapiro went to work as a producer for a Los Angeles-based production company that shot specialty sporting events. But when he heard about ESPN launching ESPN2, he took a job as a production assistant on “The Jim Rome Show.”

The job was a step down in title and pay.

“But I figured a step back might be a step forward because cable was booming,” he said. “Six months later, they put me in the producer job and it ended up paying off.”

The decision has really paid off now that he’s ESPN’s head of programming. One of his challenges is to help establish scripted programming, including original series and made-for-TV movies, to help broaden the network’s demographic base.

“When we first tested whether we should be doing movies and scripted, it was almost a unanimous no,” Mr. Shapiro said. “But when I went out in 1989 and said, `Do you want a [ESPN2-style] network with Aussie Rules Football and tractor jumping?’ they said `No,’ too. Sometimes you need to put a foot out and test the water.”

The test case was the network’s first original scripted series, “Playmakers,” which had the unique distinction of being both a success in terms of garnering decent ratings and a positive critical reception, yet also a failure, provoking a rift with the NFL that ultimately led to the program’s cancellation.

Mr. Shapiro preferred to focus on the show’s positive side. “It was a success,” he said. “The ratings were consistent and penetrated the market and had staying power.” It also helped improve the network’s female demographics, he said. “Now they’re asking for what’s next.”

What’s next is “Tilt,” a drama set in the world of professional poker players. Though the show, set to debut early next year, will be cast with actors, Mr. Shapiro said he would like to have professional players make cameos as well. “We went to the foremost writers in poker and asked if they could bring us a `Rounders’ type of gritty action drama,” he said.

Given his penchant for all things sports, it must be a little odd to do entertainment programming. After all, how does producing a sports show translate to scripted drama? Mr. Shapiro said that to him, the difference is negligible.

“At the end of the day it’s all storytelling anyway,” he said. “We’re in the emotional transportation business. If people go to a ballpark or the movies or the theater, they do it for the same reason-to escape and be entertained. And if we can move people through news or scripted entertainment or reality, it’s all the same.”