ESPN Ventures Into Scripted Series

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Continuing to broaden its original programming horizons, ESPN will look to join the original series business next summer.

The total-sports network — which this week will take stabs at reality programming and an opinion show in a focus-group setting — wants to take its first plunge into the series waters next summer by committing to a show with 11 one-hour installments.

"This is the next logical step in our original entertainment-programming evolution," said ESPN senior vice president and general manager of programming Mark Shapiro. "Sports is drama, sports provides escape. There are a lot of casual sports fans out there who aren't necessarily interested in Xs and Os, but enjoy the stories of sports."

ESPN Original Entertainment has initiated the process by contacting writers, directors and producers.

"We're speaking to creative people inside and outside of the Hollywood community and want to identify several scripts before moving forward."

Shapiro declined to comment about specific ideas the network would pursue. But sources suggest that ESPN might look to serialize the ups and downs of a fictitious team and its characters.

ESPN made its original film debut last spring, with the controversial film about ex-Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight, A Season on the Brink. Shooting for its second original film, The Junction Boys

— a look at Bear Bryant's infamous training camp as coach of the 1954 Texas A&M football team, starring Tom Berenger — was slated to begin today (Sept. 16). The film is scheduled to premiere on Dec. 14.

The network has also taken a stab at a talk show with Mohr Sports, but has elected not to renew the series hosted by comedian Jay Mohr.


Meanwhile, ESPN is about to bolster its Tuesday night "The Block" lineup over the next couple of months, starting Sept. 17.

Focus Group, airing at 7 p.m., will feature ESPN senior vice president of research and sales development Artie Bulgrin as a moderator for fans weighing in on the pros and cons of various topical sports issues. He'll alternate over the eight shows with Ed Wolf, principal of WAC Research, who has also conducted many research events for ESPN.

The show will be taped from a Manhattan loft on Monday nights, with selected groups of six to eight sports fans.

Bulgrin said the show's genesis emanates from "the dozens of focus groups we conduct each year. We found the participants' contributions to be compelling, animated and dynamic."

Asked if we were ready to become a TV star, Bulgrin said he's not planning on giving up his daily research. "My job is to make the participants stars," he said.

To that end, Bulgrin said ESPN will select fans interested in multiple sports: "For the most part, the topics will come from what happens over the weekend. We want to be as timely as possible."

Shapiro said Focus Group
should continue to sound the chord ESPN has struck with viewers who enjoy "opinion" shows like The Sports Reporters, The Sports Reporters II
and Pardon the Interruption. "This one gives fans a voice," he said.

There is also an interactive component to the show, as fans can vote on for their favorite opinion maker. The winners will return for the series' concluding installment.

In Beg, Borrow & Deal, two teams of four (two men and women on each) vie to complete 10 of 40 sports-related tasks in a race across America, beginning in New York's Times Square and with a final destination of San Francisco's Alcatraz Island.

Shapiro labeled Beg, running at 8 p.m. through Nov. 5, "fun and exciting."

"The teams are embarking on these journey without money, with just the shirt on their backs," he said. "They're trying to do some cool things."

In the first episode, Shapiro said, one team will try to get a photo taken with an Olympic athlete, while the other veers off-course in their pursuit of participating in a prison basketball game.

The winning team will get to attend two major sporting events.

Shapiro said the focus of Group
and Beg, like all of ESPN Original Entertainment's projects, is to appeal to casual sports fans as a salvo to bring them to the network more often.