VP of programming leaves ESPN. Can the sports network conquer Hollywood without its star player?

Let’s pretend you’re ESPN. Big week for you! First, you launched ESPN Hollywood, an Entertainment Tonight/SportsCenter smoosh-up (cohosted by Saved by the Bell‘s Mario Lopez) that you hope will anchor a vast new slate of original entertainment on ESPN2, now home to a lot of billiards and dogs jumping. Then, you declined to pick up the NHL’s multimillion-dollar rights fee, sending hockey to a channel formerly called the Outdoor Life Network. (No comment on OLN’s ability to find the only sport Americans care less about than cycling. Or the fact that hockey is played indoors.) And finally, your VP of programming, Mark Shapiro — a longtime staffer who masterminded the push into showbiz and a lot more at the network for the last three years, like the pickup of Monday Night Football — announced his resignation Aug. 17. Awesome! (Deep breath.)

Shapiro — who’d long been courted by broadcast nets — is joining Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder’s Red Zone LLC, a company pushing to gain control of the Six Flags theme parks — and, many believe, start a movie and TV production studio to rival that of ESPN parent Disney. ”I’m not going to comment on that,” Shapiro laughs. ”But I will say that Dan is intent on building a portfolio of entertainment assets.” (So, that’s a yes?)

Mike Antinoro, exec VP for ESPN Original Entertainment, knows Shapiro leaves big shoes to fill (sources speculate it’ll take two people), but he’s not worried. ”Mark was the driving force behind [EOE], but we took it and ran with it,” he says. And now that Mark’s the competition? ”I don’t think we’re nervous yet,” adds Antinoro, ”but we’ll keep our eyes open.”