Rock fans devour VH1's Behind the Music. The starstruck are
glued to E! True Hollywood Story. The cable granddaddy of 'em
all, A&E's Biography, has its dedicated audience. Now, sports
fans who are into life stories can get a nightly (8 p.m.)
one-hour fix from ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series. Classic
is betting that this spin-off of 1999's Emmy- and
Peabody-award-winning SportsCentury: 50 Greatest Athletes series
will make viewers and cable operators think of Classic as more
than just a purveyor of games of yore.

In addition to running one-hour versions of the 30-minute
segments seen in 1999, Mark Shapiro, Classic's general manager
and executive producer, has commissioned 81 shows for 2000 and
plans 55 more in 2001. During the remainder of this year Classic
will telecast profiles of Reggie Jackson, Maurice Richard and
Deion Sanders; on the drawing board are bios of Andre Agassi,
Cynthia Cooper and Oscar De La Hoya. Shapiro has introduced theme
weeks, such as this week's slate featuring celebrated leaders
Casey Stengel, Red Auerbach and Bud Wilkinson. He has also
broadened the definition of classic to react to the news: Three
nights after Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight was fired, the
channel presented a three-hour retrospective of his career. "What
happened to Bobby Knight affects his legacy," says Shapiro. "It's
a story we needed to cover."

Generation Xer Shapiro might seem a curious choice to lead a
network covering a century during which he was alive for only 29
years. In 1996 he was tapped to oversee ESPN's Millennium Project
after only three years experience as a producer for ESPN's Up
Close. (He had previously worked at NBC Sports.) His first moves
were to hire veteran television producer Bud Morgan, 71, and
senior writer Pat Smith, 63. Shapiro assigns each bio to a
production team, which spends a minimum of six months researching
and interviewing before it begins filming. Shapiro and Smith edit
the film before sending it to researchers for checking.

What's been Shapiro's favorite show so far? "John McEnroe," he
says without hesitation. "He just sat on a couch as if being
analyzed by a psychiatrist. It was a total human portrait, and
that's ultimately our mission."

--John O'Keefe

COLOR PHOTO: TONY DUFFYShapiro seeks to present "total human portraits" of the likes of McEnroe (above) and Auerbach. B/W PHOTO: FRED KAPLAN [See caption above]