ESPN's Hot Play Caller

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Mark Shapiro stands at the back of the control room, rocking back and forth like a jittery father watching his kid's first Little League game. The head of production and programming at Disney-owned ESPN, Shapiro is visiting the set of the cable giant's latest project, Cold Pizza, TV's first morning sports gabfest. The show is Shapiro's baby, and like any Little League dad, he can't resist getting involved.

During one segment he orders Kit Hoover, the amped-up co-anchor, to mention her garlic passion as a guest dubbed the World's Fastest Pizzamaker sauces a pie. The show's last seconds wind down, and Shapiro, eyes widening, suddenly stops pacing. Cold Pizza is ending to the sound of a shrieking microphone. Shapiro lowers his head; his kid just dropped a pop fly.

It's a rare sour note for Shapiro these days. Since George Bodenheimer, president of ABC Sports and ESPN, tapped the boy wonder (Shapiro is just 33) two years ago to reinvigorate one of Disney's most profitable brands, ratings have jumped 11%. Shapiro's playbook: original entertainment programming (which now makes up 6% of ESPN's lineup) and more live events, as opposed to ESPN's staple of sports news and highlights. While the critically panned Cold Pizza struggles in a cutthroat morning market, the sports-journalist-debate shows Pardon the Interruption and Around the Horn have scored. So too has a new graphic drama series about a professional football team, Playmakers.

Shapiro's melding of sports and entertainment has people making comparisons with another sports legend. "He's like Roone Arledge," says veteran producer Bud Morgan, who has worked with Shapiro and the late ABC icon. "Only smarter." And like Arledge, Shapiro is not the lovable Lou Grant type. He is quick to praise, but he is brutally honest — this spring he started informal "town hall" meetings with staff groups, at which he said he would push aside nonperformers. His commercial instincts have also drawn fire. Actress Thea Andrews is featured as a flirty sports reporter on Playmakers and as the genuine article on Cold Pizza. "It reeks of hypocrisy," says an ESPN personality. Shapiro is unmoved: "Thea is not covering Watergate. If she was, she wouldn't be on Playmakers."

If it were up to ESPN's prized client, the National Football League, no one would be on Playmakers. League commissioner Paul Tagliabue has criticized Playmakers, whose scripts have included a player stealing painkillers from a young cancer patient. Tampa Bay Buccaneers star Warren Sapp calls Playmakers the worst show on television and now refuses to talk to ESPN reporters. "The saddest part is that it's being put out by the 'worldwide sports leader,'" says Sapp. Declares NFL Players Association executive Doug Allen: "Whoever is responsible for this owes the NFL an apology."

Don't hold your breath. "To hypothesize that Playmakers has harmed a 24-year relationship is absurd," Shapiro says. He was also instrumental in hiring Rush Limbaugh for ESPN's Sunday-morning NFL pregame show. But when the conservative talk-radio host made his racially charged comments about Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, Shapiro was, at least initially, uncharacteristically mute. In the end, he helped force Limbaugh out. "Put as much blame as you want on me," Shapiro says.

The network has yet to renew the highly rated Playmakers. Shapiro insists that the only thing that could kill the program would be high production costs, not Warren Sapp. "There's poetic license taken," Shapiro notes. "To personalize it and claim we are aiming at you is absurd." Now he's taking the NBA to the hoop: ESPN will air an Osbournes-like look at Dennis Rodman's NBA comeback attempt. NASCAR could be next. Shapiro has slated a Dale Earnhardt biopic for the spring. "Name me a great company that doesn't take some risks," Shapiro says. And name a great programmer who has not been fired at least once.