Concerned about harming its business relationship with the NFL, ESPN called an audible Wednesday and announced it was canceling “Playmakers,” its seamy pro football drama.
Mark Shapiro, ESPN vice president in charge of programming and production, said the NFL’s reaction to the series was “the primary factor” in deciding to cancel the weekly show.
“But we made the decision,” Shapiro said. “We do not let anyone dictate our programming agenda.”
Shapiro said if the NFL had its way, ESPN would have canceled “Playmakers” after the first episode.
“The NFL opposed the show, and week after week we heard their complaints, objections and concerns,” he said.
The decision to cancel the show was made last week, according to Shapiro. But an announcement was delayed until after the Super Bowl.
“We didn’t want to rain on the NFL’s parade,” he said.
Ideally, ESPN wanted to hold off on the announcement even longer so that it could announce a new dramatic series at the same time.
But ESPN decided to make the announcement now because, Shapiro said, several actors on the show needed to know if they would be free to pursue other projects.
He said the timing of the announcement had nothing to do with the mounting criticism of the Super Bowl halftime show.
“This is pilot season, and we didn’t want to be messing with people’s livelihoods,” Shapiro said.
He said the NFL’s complaints mainly were voiced by Steve Bornstein, NFL executive vice president of media and a former ESPN president, and Roger Goodell, NFL executive vice president and chief operating officer.
NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue also had publicly criticized the show, which focused on a fictional pro football team and included plots about drug use, marital infidelity, racism and homophobia. The show aired Tuesday nights.
The NFL released a statement about the cancellation which said, “It was an ESPN decision, and now we can all move on.”
ESPN pays an average of $600 million a year to the NFL for television rights as part of an eight-year contract that expires after two more seasons.
Shapiro had no complaints about his dealings with the NFL.
“They were totally professional, despite being opposed to the show,” he said. “They understood our motives.
“They just didn’t like the inevitable comparisons being drawn to their league.
“They would readily admit ESPN is their best partner when it comes to promotion, marketing, shoulder programming and game coverage. ESPN is the best vehicle for the NFL.
“We just got turned sideways on this venture.”
Shapiro said ESPN would continue to carry scripted dramatic programs but would have a more watchful eye on the plots and that the shows would include more redeeming characters.
But he was happy with what “Playmakers” accomplished.
“Our viewers gravitated to the show,” he said.
The show drew an average audience of about 2 million viewers, five times as many for the time slot the previous year.
Shapiro specifically pointed out that “Playmakers” drew women to ESPN.
“We proved our point that we could draw more viewers by broadening out,” he said. “We made our point, and moved on.
“There was no reason to rub it in the face of one of our most important partners.”