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Not only fun, games

ESPN goes beyond sports, hoping to score with entertaining dramas and chat shows.

October 18, 2003|Robert Strauss | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — The young lady with the heavy Boston North Shore accent smiled stiffly, rearranging her Red Sox jersey as she sat on the couch. Next to her, inching slightly away and slapping his thighs nervously was her boyfriend, a Long Islander decked out in a Yankees shirt.

Less nervous on the other couch was Dawn Yanek, who writes a column called "Sex Spy" for Stuff magazine, a publication designed mostly for young men who slap their thighs nervously and deck themselves out in Yankees shirts. Yanek's job this particular morning was to advise the two on how they could cope with their possibly volatile baseball allegiances and still have a romance.

This may be ESPN, but it ain't your daddy's "SportsCenter."

Relationships, food, music, news you can use -- that is what ESPN2's "Cold Pizza," the network's 4-6 a.m. chat show is about. The show runs weekdays, starting Monday. ESPN was built on guys who slap their thighs nervously and deck themselves out in Yankees shirts, to be sure, but taken for granted was that those folks only wanted highlights, scoreboards, live and taped games and maybe the occasional cheerleader cutaway shot. Now ESPN is thinking that those guys want something else as well, something that the "feminized" TV world away from sports won't provide them. As Yanek's presence suggests, some of the inspiration for the show, as it is for much of ESPN2, is with the cheeky, snarky "lad" magazines like Maxim or FHM.

"We're doing this with a real male focus, which makes sense because all the other morning shows are female-oriented," said Jim Cohen, ESPN's vice president for programming and production. "Our viewers don't have a morning show and, if you look at places like Men's Fitness and Men's Health magazines, you know they want more about relationships and health and all that."

ESPN is joining Spike TV and Comedy Central's "The Man Show" in a strange new mini-trend in television, of stations that serve the needs of men, who, it turns out, haven't had programming of their own. Surely, many women, who've had to endure as their husbands hoarded the remote control to watch stations like, well, ESPN, would beg to differ. But ESPN executives have decided games are not enough.

While on the one hand, ESPN is spending more and more on big-time sports rights -- the National Football League, World Cup Soccer, three of the four tennis Grand Slam events, college basketball and football -- it has also veered into entertainment in a bigger way. The network aired two made-for-TV movies in the last year -- one about basketball coach Bobby Knight, the other about football coaching legend Bear Bryant. It has hired and let go Rush Limbaugh as a football commentator. It has a new dramatic series, "Playmakers," a rough-life drama about professional football. At least two of its commentary shows -- "Pardon the Interruption" and "Around the Horn" -- tend toward the boisterous, often at the expense of the actual sporting events.

"The whole thing is rather interesting. That 'E' in ESPN stood for entertainment, which they never have dealt with, so now they are clearly trying to broaden their horizons," said Steven Miller, a professor in the Rutgers University communication department who teaches about the television business. "If you look at 'Playmakers,' it doesn't deal with football games, but it is as if sensationalist television has invaded the world of sports.

"Now, if you look closely, they hyped things up on 'Sports Center,' " he said. "They hyped their graphics and play up clips of fights and the like. They had outdoors shows before, but never with Deion Sanders, a flashy football guy. Now a morning show. It is all entertainment, but is this the way ESPN is supposed to be?"

Well, perhaps, if you ask Mark Shapiro, ESPN's executive vice president for programming and production, who is the gatekeeper for all ideas about what gets aired on the network.

"We do want to experiment, to bring in a broader group of people," said Shapiro, a high-energy detail-oriented guy. He weighed in during one "Cold Pizza" rehearsal, for instance, on how many times host Jay Crawford should hear time cues and precisely how the "Cold Pizza" on-air logo should angle on the screen.

"The movies and 'Playmakers' show that ESPN will be successful in reaching other than the hard-core sports fan. We have a challenge to do something outside of games," he said. "We have not even pulled the covers off what ESPN can do."

Going after female fans

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