ESPN takes pass on scripted TV

Execs say 'Burning' is the last of its kind for a while

After ratings and creative success with such fare as "Playmakers" and "3," ESPN is taking a timeout from the scripted business. With the end this week of the eight-part miniseries "The Bronx Is Burning," nothing else is planned or likely to be green-lighted anytime soon, ESPN executives said Thursday.

Instead, the company will spend more time on its bread-and-butter sports properties and news-oriented shows while announcing plans to run selected documentaries. And in the fall, it's launching an investigative series titled "ESPN Reports."

That amounts to a holding pattern in terms of the Hollywood-style development in what used to be called ESPN Original Entertainment, which was responsible for those types of shows and a short-lived daily news program titled "ESPN Hollywood." It's a marked shift from the days of former executive vp Mark Shapiro, who sought to broaden the company's appeal to more than just sporting events and scores.

Today, ESPN executives say that sports and strictly sports-related content are what its audience wants. John Skipper, who as executive vp content at ESPN is in charge of content across ESPN's many platforms, said it's not about broadening the audience but instead about giving their current audience more of what they crave.

"I'm a little less interested in the intersection of where entertainment and sports combine," Skipper said. That was the central idea of "ESPN Hollywood," which was canceled after a low-rated run.

ESPN Original Entertainment was folded into the company's new content development group, headed by publishing veteran Keith Clinkscales. Ron Semiao, senior vp ESPN Original Entertainment, remains in charge of the entertainment-related activities, though there's nothing close to being announced.

That doesn't mean that scripted development is on hold forever. Skipper said he wouldn't be surprised to see a loosely scripted half-hour series appearing on ESPN in the future, and he has been thinking about an animated series while recognizing that animation is a tough business to do well. Other projects, like a Vince Lombardi biopic, remain in development and have been for years. Development will proceed, Skipper said, when ESPN finds the right project.

"Burning," ESPN's most ambitious scripted project, hit more of a bloop single than a home run for the network. The premiere of the miniseries, which concluded its weekly run Tuesday, began more than an hour later than scheduled because a big overrun for the Home Run Derby telecast from the All-Star Game. ESPN believes the sales of the DVD, which will be released in October, will help salve the disappointment.

But while scripted development has lost pace at the Bristol, Conn.-based network, Skipper said it is stepping up the pace of documentaries. This year, ESPN and the Tribeca Film Festival partnered on a series of sports-related documentaries. Dan Klores' "Black Magic," about black athletes in the 1950s and '60s, will appear on ESPN. Another docu, about Japanese baseball seen through the eyes of former New York Mets and Texas Rangers skipper Bobby Valentine, will appear next year.

"There are lots of great stories in sports, and we want to tell those stories," Skipper said.

Meanwhile, an element of ESPN on the West Coast will be expanded with the completion of L.A. Live, the downtown Los Angeles entertainment district project that will have two production studios totaling 30,000 feet of space; an ESPN Zone restaurant; and a 9,000-seat Nokia Theatre that will host the annual ESPY awards.

ESPN president George Bodenheimer said he has toured the facility within the past month or so and it's on track to be ready for ESPN in first-quarter 2009.

"Exactly what we'll produce out there has not been determined," Bodenheimer said. Skipper said the network would likely do the late version of "SportsCenter" there and would try to broaden its viewing base on the West Coast by producing other programs there.
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