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New shows must retain ESPN's reputation for quality

At ESPN, "reality" isn't just a genre of programming. It's the knowledge that if the network doesn't do something to earn new and younger viewers, it could be left in the ratings dust.

That's not the way senior vice president Mark Shapiro has chosen to put it, but that's essentially the underlying message in ESPN's cluster of announcements about new programming ventures. In addition to a made-for-ESPN movie based on John Feinstein's Bobby Knight/Indiana basketball book A Season on the Brink, the network plans, among other things, a reality-based series called Beg, Borrow and B.S.; a 90-minute special on the World's Sexiest Athletes; and an expansion of the popular and acclaimed SportsCentury series called College SportsCentury.

The new shows fall under the umbrella of the year-old ESPN Original Entertainment (EOE). Beginning Jan. 20 with the sexiest athlete special, ESPN will devote all of Sunday's prime time (8-11 p.m.) to original programming. The three-hour block of original programming will be moved to Tuesdays in June so as not to conflict with Sunday Night Baseball or, eventually, Sunday night NFL games.

Shapiro emphasized that otherwise, little about the network will change.

"Fans turn to us for news daily, and they expect consistent and competitive events on a nightly basis," he said in a conference call Wednesday. "That is the marquee form of entertainment on the ESPN networks and will continue to be.

"At the same time, after doing a lot of research and analyzing the environment, we want to offer our fans another vehicle, a new form of entertainment as long as we're consistent with our brand and we don't water down the brand."

Shapiro said researchers found women love the SportsCentury series because of the strong storytelling involved. He sees original movies as another way to entice that audience. In addition to the movie based on Feinstein's book, scheduled to air March 10, ESPN is working on a movie marking the 30th anniversary of the terrorist attacks at the 1972 Olympics and a possible feature film.

The network hopes to draw in younger viewers with reality programming, most notably Beg, Borrow and B.S., in which two teams of four people will be dropped off in New York City with no money, credit cards or transportation. The goal: to get to Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay, completing sports-related challenges during their journey cross country.

The prize for the winning team after all that effort? Two tickets each to four major sports championships of their choosing. "Contestants are going for fame, not fortune," Shapiro told USA Today this week.

Uh-huh. This is a jaded sports writer talking, but hey, throw in some cash for their troubles.

Such programming has a place if it's the kind of high-quality stuff we're used to seeing from ESPN (bonus points if it means all cheerleading/world's strongest man goes to ESPN2).

The made-for-TV movie concepts and in-depth storytelling involved in College SportsCentury sound promising. A special on the world's sexiest athletes sounds pandering (but it will no doubt bring in ratings).

The reality-based programming might be a harder sell. Young viewers like fresh ideas, even if they're outrageous _ witness the buzz surrounding MTV's no-redeeming-qualities show Jackass. Repeating a now-tired formula, on cable no less, won't work. It will have to be clever to succeed, but cleverness is something we've come to expect from ESPN.

"We pride ourselves on being visionaries and leaders in sports entertainment," Shapiro said. "If we wait for it to impact us, it will be too late. We want to get out in front and put more choices to our fans.

"That's the biggest message we've gotten from our viewers. They want to get closer to the games and to the participants and we think some of this programming will allow them to do that."

FINE TUNING: ESPN also announced this week that longtime anchor/reporter Suzy Kolber will replace Solomon Wilcots as sideline reporter for Sunday Night Football. A&E takes a critical look at a "sport out of control" with adocumentary, Boxing: In and Out of the Ring, at 9 p.m. Sunday. College Kickoff, the live one-hour show hosted by Frank Frangie, will move from Fox Sports Net Florida to the Sunshine Network this fall. It will air at 10 a.m. Saturdays beginning Aug. 25. Just what we've been waiting for: Fox Sports Net's Best Damn Sports Show Period debuts Monday at midnight. It airs weeknights and features commentary from, among others, actor Tom Arnold, NFL Hall of Famer Deacon Jones and former Phillies slugger John Kruk.