When ESPN bowed its original series Playmakers last August, the network expected to broaden its audience base beyond its core male 18-to-34 audience.
Two months and eight episodes later, the controversial series about a fictitious pro football team has drawn a significant number of young women to the network, according to ESPN executives.
The show is averaging a consistent 1.0 rating among women 18 to 34, easily besting ratings for ESPN's coverage of National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball and National Hockey League games, ESPN says.
"We wanted to keep our existing viewers for a longer period of time and to attract more casual viewers to ESPN," network vice president, research and sales development Artie Bulgrin said. "In this case, with the female audience that we're getting, we're accomplishing that."
The show has remained strong among males 18 to 49 —through Oct. 20 a 2.2 rating — despite a recent decline in household ratings. The Oct. 14 episode generated a 1.5 rating, its second lowest mark, as the show went head to head with Fox's telecast of the Chicago Cubs-Florida Marlins Major League Baseball National League Championship series game. Overall, the show's premiere installments have averaged a 1.8 household rating.
The solid performance has come despite complaints and criticism from some National Football League executives because of its often-negative portrayal of pro football players.
But Bulgrin said the serial aspect of the show — as well as its entertainment value — has made the series appealing to young women. He also said the skein's football-based storyline bodes well for the show, as ESPN's NFL telecasts are the highest-rated programming among female viewers.
"Women tend to watch sports the way men do," Bulgrin said. "With the NFL being the most popular sport among women, you can see why they're tuning into this [series] about professional football. Adding to that is the entertainment factor, and I think that's appealing here."
All told, Playmakers has been drawing 10 times the number of 18-to-34-year-old female viewers than other programming in the Tuesday 9 p.m. time slot last year. "Even among women 35 and older we're doing four times the audience than we get for older women," Bulgrin said.
Playmakers is the first series under ESPN's Original Entertainment division, which was created to broaden the network's audience base through original movies, series and specialty programming.
Still, ESPN has not yet decided whether to renew the series. "We continue to evaluate [the series]," said a network spokeswoman.
On Oct. 21, ESPN and ESPN2 encored the first eight episodes. With three more original installments left, the first season concludes on Nov. 11.