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ESPN weens itself off all-sports diet

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HOLLYWOOD — ESPN, you may have noted, staged its annual awards show, the ESPYs, earlier this week. The all-sports (sort of) cable network has, in the past year or so, produced and aired its first two made-for-TV movies. Sports-related telefilms, of course (dramatized stories of Bobby Knight and Paul "Bear" Bryant), but TV movies nonetheless.

In August, ESPN will premiere its first weekly drama series. It, too, is sports related — "Playmakers" goes behind the scenes of a fictional professional football team.

And coming in January, ESPN will add a reality show in the tradition (if we can use that word) of "American Idol." Non-professionals will have the chance to compete for their "Dream Job" — a yearlong gig as one of the anchors of the network's signature "SportsCenter" franchise.

All this from a network that used to be basically all sports, all the time. Oh, various panel and interview shows (not to mention "SportsCenter") talk about sports instead of actually showing contested events, but they are still about real sports. They aren't about dramatic re-creations, fictional football teams and who will be the ESPN equivalent of Kelly Clarkson and Ruben Studderd.

Should we be worried that ESPN will go the way of MTV — that there won't be any more S in ESPN than there is M in MTV someday?

The quick answer is a rather emphatic "No" from Mark Shapiro, ESPN's executive vice president of programming and production. "We are never going to lose sense, ever, of what got us to the dance. And that is live events, which is why we continue to go out and extend current deals and acquire new properties at the same time," he said.

And you can't argue that, by and large, ESPN continues to do what it has always done, which is focus on real sports. But, still, there's been this almost imperceptible creep toward somehow mainstreaming the network toward entertainment and not just sports. Shapiro quoted numbers showing that "ESPN original entertainment makes up only 6 percent of our annual programming schedule," which doesn't sound like much. But it's 6 percent more than we would have found not that long ago.

"We have to continue to strengthen what works for us — live events and news and info — while at the same time being flexible to reach out and ultimately bring new viewers under our tent," Shapiro said.

If that's what they're really doing — trying to bring new viewers to ESPN who will stick around for the real sports — then there's nothing scary about any of this. But, on the other hand, Shapiro cited some numbers showing that "the lowest-rated hours on MTV these days are the hours that they put on music videos. So, wherever they've gone, it clearly works for them."

So maybe sports fans better hope that ESPN's awards show and reality shows and scripted dramas aren't too popular.

E-mail: pierce@desnews.com