By Bob Keisser
Special to TelevisionWeek
You might say the dawn of the E!SPN Generation in sports television is upon us.
More than 25 years after its launch with a menu of niche sports such as monster truck races and Australian Rules Football, the ESPN universe is going Hollywood, chasing a new pool of viewers and advertisers and bringing the kind of red-carpet programming to a sports network that Joe Fan never imagined seeing bracketed around “SportsCenter” and “Outside the Lines.”
Most notable is the newest venue, “ESPN Hollywood,” a glossy half-hour sports version of “Entertainment Tonight” and “Access Hollywood,” the syndicated shows that cover the entertainment field with an HD-sheen and tremendous affection and without judgment.
Just in its third month, “ESPN Hollywood,” which is televised weeknights at 6 p.m. (ET) on ESPN2, with midnight repeats, has already gained notice in the marketplace for a handful of reasons. Besides being such a different animal in the sports zoo, the show is already starting to attract new advertisers for its parent, The Walt Disney Co., Nielsen ratings are steadily climbing and it is finding its own voice.
That isn’t particularly hard at ESPN, considering the other shows are baritones by comparison.
On any given day “ESPN Hollywood” will present six or seven news segments on topics as varied as the latest wardrobe and fashion designs of tennis star Serena Williams and the latest gossip about hookups involving sports stars. If an athlete is a partner in a new restaurant, the story may find its way on the show. If Shaquille O’Neal shows up at an awards show, it’s on “ESPN Hollywood.” Jose Canseco’s ex-wife does Playboy? It’s on the call sheet.
Mouthy Eagles receiver Terrell Owens gets engaged. Oscar De La Hoya announces a new business venture. Sylvester Stallone resuscitates the “Rocky” series. Matt Leinart and Tom Brady do photo layouts for men’s mags. Film at 6. It’s all the show’s bread and butter.
“Whether you or I like it, athletes are celebrities now much more than they ever were in the past,” said ESPN’s Mike Antinoro, executive producer for the ESPN Original Entertainment division. “What Maria Sharapova does when she’s not playing and what Serena wears, we didn’t create that.
“Those kind of stories are out there and there’s an appetite for them, so we’re covering this intersection between Hollywood and sports. We would never compare ‘ESPN Hollywood’ to ‘SportsCenter,’ because it’s a different type of show, but we do look upon it as an extension of sports news.”
“My first reaction to the series idea was ‘Geez, why didn’t we think of this sooner?'” said Barry Bonnell, the executive producer of “ESPN Hollywood.” “Because the lines between the athlete, musician and movie star have been blurred, some of the top athletes-Shaq, [Michael] Jordan, Tom Brady-are celebrities just as much as the best actors and rock stars.”
ESPN’s EOE division operates knowing it is a branch of Disney. “ESPN Hollywood” may not look or sound like “SportsCenter,” but execs wanted the newcomer to fit within the broader ESPN foundation.
“It may not seem to be a necessary show, but we consider it part of the sports information day, and in our community, we want to be complete and thorough,” Mr. Antinoro said.
“We don’t want to be too slick, because we’re part of the ESPN family. Other shows get away with video of a celebrity [obtained by spying] at a restaurant. We won’t do that. We have to work harder to find the story and get more information because we aspire to be different than the others.”
Nonetheless, much of the show’s tone and pace resembles the Hollywood entertainment shows.
“ESPN Hollywood” is hosted by actor Mario Lopez, of “Saved by the Bell” fame, and Thea Andrews, a real-life sportscaster and actress who had a small role on the critically acclaimed and NFL-euthanized “Playmakers.” The show’s producer is Andy Meyers, who produced “ET” for 13 years.
“We had the model to begin with in Andy,” said Mr. Bonnell, whose background is in sports at NBC, ABC and ESPN. “But as we go, we’re adjusting. We want to give the show its own personality and find our own audience. We believe there’s an entertainment angle to a lot of sports stories and it’s our job to find it.”
The audience is already starting to appear. A recent Monday telecast almost doubled the usual Nielsen average rating, and while the numbers are modest, the 6 p.m. time slot is ultra-competitive. The fact the show launched in the summer certainly wasn’t an advantage in building word of mouth.
The re-air at midnight has often exceeded the Nielsen ratings for the 6 p.m. show, and the numbers are solid in the coveted 18 to 34 demographic. “We’re still so new that we don’t have enough research yet for a good analysis, but we like what we’ve seen so far,” Mr. Bonnell said.
The EOE division has probably been the most successful spinoff of the original, which is saying something, considering the growth of ESPN2 and ESPN’s vast universe. The first notable venture was the critically acclaimed “SportsCentury” series produced by Mark Shapiro.
The “SportsCentury” series was a superb merger of sports culture with slick Hollywood packaging, but sports was always the essence of the shows. The emphasis has now been spun in the other direction.
All of the TV movies produced by EOE were about sports personalities-Bobby Knight, Dale Earnhardt, Pete Rose, Bear Bryant-but steeped in the finest Hollywood based-on-a-true-story biopic tradition.
However much it might have rankled sports fans to see Brian Dennehy poorly cast as Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight, or to see the horrible hairpiece worn by Tom Sizemore in the Pete Rose movie, those missteps haven’t stopped EOE’s momentum or blurred its vision. The films are earning better Nielsen ratings-most first-run telecasts have been watched by about 3 million viewers-than the events the network pays millions to obtain, and anything other than “SportsCenter” that can attract a viewer is coveted.
EOE’s next film,”Codebreakers,” breaks the biopic mold by taking a look at the 1951 Army football team cheating scandal. It will debut next year.
The two EOE TV drama series generated considerable heat. “Playmakers,” the series that infuriated the NFL with its depiction of every negative clich%E9; one could find in a football locker room, was critically lauded because it was engrossing even while dealing in stereotypes. Many fans are still bummed that the NFL’s protest-to which ESPN listened because it has rights deals with the league-killed plans for a second season. Its average audience during its 11-week run in 2003 was 2 million viewers.
“Creatively, we’re incredibly proud of EOE,” Mr. Antinoro said. “We’re not batting 1.000, but we’re really happy. Some of the shows have taken off, many of them have been well received, and all of the movies have rated well. We didn’t launch EOE necessarily to find a new demographic. We wanted to give our core viewers more.
“But we have found new viewers and partnerships. We received a spike in female viewers from ‘Playmakers.’ When it aired on Tuesdays, it was the highest-rated cable show among women, and that includes whatever was on Lifetime. We didn’t make it to reach out to women, but it turned out that way because it was a show of quality.
“Adwise, we’re finding that ‘ESPN Hollywood’ gives us some specific targeting opportunities tied to music that weren’t available in our other shows. But the show is still so new that it’s hard to make any conclusions.”
Another nonlinear sports show from EOE is the morning talker “Cold Pizza,” which takes a casual, soft view of the sports news a la network morning shows such as NBC’s “Today.” EOE has also gone to the reality series well several times and has two new series planned for 2006: the second season of Mark Burnett’s “The Contender” and “Knight School,” a series built around basketball coach Knight.
ESPN has seized this industry,
but it didn’t create it. It all began at Fox. When the fledging network got into the sports business by landing a chunk of NFL rights in 1994, it aggressively chose to differentiate itself from other network presentations.
For its NFL pregame show, it hired a weathergirl, Jillian Barberie, who was on hand less to talk barometric pressure than to get a rise out of studio host Terry Bradshaw. Likewise, Fox hired comedian Jimmy Kimmel in 2000 to do skits and constantly tweak Bradshaw and friends, under the guise of picking games.
It worked, and then begat the show some critics have loved to hate from its launch in 2001, “The Best Damn Sports Show Period,” on Fox’s cable outlet Fox Sports Net.
“Best” hired comedian/actor Tom Arnold as host (he’s now a guest contributor), surrounded him with ex-athletes with broad personalities, chased and booked A- and B-list celebrities to visit and talk sports and staged elaborate skits that seemed so foreign to what people knew as sports that they almost deserved subtitles.
Critics be damned, the show has endured. It is nearing its 1,000th episode and 4,000th guest.
“The basis of the show was let’s treat sports in a way that’s never been treated on TV, but in the way we treat sports every day in real life,” Fox Sports President George Greenberg said. “People want to chat and yak about sports and have fun with it.
“We put Tom on because he’s your average sports Everyman and he had tentacles into the entertainment arena.”
Athletes of today are much more comfortable than any previous generation with being considered entertainers. But other than a few celebrity sports fans like Jack Nicholson and Spike Lee, there was no proof that any A-lister would want to be a guest on a cable sports talk show.
Now there’s ample proof. For example, Robert Duvall made an appearance and displayed his tango dancing skills. “Most everyone who has come on has walked out saying, ‘I had fun,'” Mr. Greenberg said. “And the celebrities are really no different than any other sports fan. They have opinions and have favorite teams.”
While the “Best” demographic is heavily male, the presence of celebrities has created some crossover appeal. “You bring Ben Affleck on your show, a guy’s girlfriend is more apt to watch,” Mr. Greenberg said. “My wife may not watch it much, because she thinks stats are boring, but she sat down to watch Duvall dance.”
Ad growth also has been noteworthy. “Best” took the marketing theory of embedding products to another level.
“The question was do you hurt your editorial by embedding advertising in the show? For us, the answer was no, because we did it so seamlessly,” Mr. Greenberg said. “We didn’t point out there was a sign for Labatt’s beer behind Tom; it was just there.
“I considered it a lot like the ads on dasher boards of hockey games. Advertisers want to get in as deep as they can into the product, and they have become very accepted. The more successful embedding becomes, the less offensive I think it is to the viewer.”
Fox and FSN are earnestly looking for new ways to approach the entertainment/ sports market. Fox landed an automotive company to sponsor a pre-pregame show for baseball’s All-Star Game that turned into sort of a red carpet pre-Oscar show.
FSN constantly considers new hybrid programming. But FSN’s model is built around its regional, event-hungry affiliates, so adding a “Best” clone or spinoff is difficult.
“We’d like to broaden what we do, but we have to stay true to our core,” Mr. Greenberg said. “The question becomes, ‘How far can you stray from the things your audience expects?'”
In the works is a new show with a tie to a popular sports magazine. It could spawn a few entertainment-style shows.
“EOE has done a wonderful job blending sports and entertainment and taking advantage of sports talk shows,” Mr. Greenberg said. “It’s not surprising, because [Disney is] an entertainment company that is very topically integrated. We’ve had the opportunity to do sports-theme movies, but we’re not in the movie business.
“We have a lot of the same viewers, but we have to hook ours around their favorite teams. Our news shows are regional too. So we have to be careful where we take our chances.”
And with “Best” entrenched, there’s not a lot of need for new variations on the same theme.
Meanwhile, Mr. Antinoro, Mr. Bonnell and Mr. Meyers continue to mold “ESPN Hollywood” while also considering how much it can grow. It has a modest-size staff that produces the 30 or so stories per week, all the while knowing that there are even more stories out there to cull once they can add staff and resources. “The machine is hungry,” Mr. Bonnell said.
And elsewhere, you can find singer/entertainer Nick Lachey doing feature reporting on ESPN’s college football shows, music acts showing up on pregame shows and more and more athletes becoming hyphenates as they release rap CDs and land bigger parts in films. It’s not a trend, it’s a clear movement.
“I don’t want to try and convince people to love the show,” Mr. Antinoro said of “ESPN Hollywood.” “We just want to do the show consistently and well, and if someone samples it and likes it, great. It’s like those who say men don’t read People magazine. Well, if they’re in a doctor’s office, they might pick it up and kind of like what they see.
“We’re not half ‘SportsCenter’ and half ‘ET.’ We want to be our own animal, and if we accomplish that, we think people will watch.”