SBD/August 23, 2013/Media

ESPN, NFL Deny Report The League Pressured The Net To Pull Out Of "Frontline" Project

Former NFLers such as Harry Carson discuss sustaining brain trauma on the field
The NFL and ESPN Friday morning denied a N.Y. TIMES report that the league pressured ESPN to pull out of an investigative project with PBS' “Frontline” regarding head injuries in the NFL. The N.Y. TIMES’ James Miller cited two people familiar with the situation stating the league pressured its media partner during a luncheon this week in N.Y. But NFL VP/Communications Brian McCarthy told THE DAILY, “It is not true that we pressured ESPN to pull out of the film. The lunch was requested several weeks ago by ESPN. We meet with our business partners on a regular basis and this was not unusual.” ESPN’s Josh Krulewitz said, “The decision to remove our branding was not a result of concerns about our separate business relationship with the NFL. As we have in the past including as recently as Sunday, we will continue to cover the concussion story aggressively through our own reporting" (THE DAILY).

SPOTTED AT PATROON: The TIMES' Miller reports that officials last week had a lunch meeting at Patroon in N.Y., with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, NFL Network President Steve Bornstein, ESPN President John Skipper and ESPN Exec VP/Production John Wildhack. League officials during the "combative meeting ... conveyed their displeasure with the direction of the documentary, which is expected to describe a narrative that has been captured in various news reports over the past decade: the league turning a blind eye to evidence that players were sustaining brain trauma on the field that could lead to profound, long-term cognitive disability.” Sources said that ESPN’s role “came under intense pressure by the league ... after a trailer for the documentary was released Aug. 6” (NYTIMES.com, 8/23). Both “Frontline” and ESPN Thursday night issued releases detailing the network’s decision to pull its involvement from “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis.” "Frontline" Exec Producer David Fanning and Deputy Exec Producer Raney Aronson came out first and wrote on the program's website, "We don't normally comment on investigative projects in progress, but we regret ESPN's decision to end a collaboration that has spanned 15 months" ("Frontline"). ESPN later issued a statement that read, "Because ESPN is neither producing nor exercising editorial control over the Frontline documentaries, there will be no co-branding involving ESPN on the documentaries or their marketing materials. The use of ESPN’s marks could incorrectly imply that we have editorial control. As we have in the past, we will continue to cover the concussion story through our own reporting." The statement continued, “In hindsight, we should have reached this conclusion much sooner. That was a mistake on our part. We simply had not earlier focused on the implications of the marketing and promotion strategy around the documentaries” (ESPN).

DETAILS ON THE MOVE: In N.Y., Richard Sandomir writes ESPN "belatedly focused on the fact that it did not have editorial control of what appeared on 'Frontline' long into a collaboration that has already resulted in nine joint television and online reports." However, Aronson said that ESPN execs had "for more than a year understood the ground rules of the collaboration." Aronson: "We were about to share a cut of our film with them, and we welcomed their input." ESPN's Mark Fainaru-Wada, who worked on the series, said, "We don’t totally understand what happened. Nothing we’ve been told by anybody suggests that they’re [ESPN] backing off on the journalism.” Aronson said that until last Friday, there had been "no hint of trouble between 'Frontline' and ESPN." But in "conversations last Friday and Monday" with ESPN Senior VP & Dir of News Vince Doria and ESPN Senior Coordinating Producer Dwayne Bray, Aronson was told that ESPN "did not want its logo to be connected to the films." She said, “It didn’t appear that it was their decision." ESPN last Sunday on “OTL” featured the most recent concussion piece, examining former Jets team physician Dr. Elliot Pellman's role in covering up the severity of concussions. Meanwhile, the NFL was "not supportive of the documentary." NFL Senior VP/PR Greg Aiello said that the league declined to make Goodell and “other executives available" for the film (N.Y. TIMES, 8/23). In DC, Paul Fahri notes ESPN will "no longer permit” "Frontline" to use its “logos nor other credits on the two-hour film, nor two 'Frontline' Web sites related to it." The film is "based on reporting" by "Frontline" and ESPN's Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru. "Frontline" said that they will "continue to work on the TV documentary and will appear in it." The title and trailer for the film "portray it is a hard-hitting indictment of the NFL’s handling of head injuries.” ESPN and "Frontline" have been working on the project for more than a year (WASHINGTON POST, 8/23). In L.A., Joe Flint notes the film "includes interviews with former NFL players, and the league is not portrayed in a flattering light for how it has handled the issue of head injuries over the years" (L.A. TIMES, 8/23).

INITIAL REACTIONS: The L.A. TIMES' Flint writes there "may be a perception" that ESPN "pulled its logo and credit out of fear of angering its most important business partner." But ESPN sources said that this was "simply a branding issue and had nothing to do with the content" of the film (L.A. TIMES, 8/23). THE NEW REPUBLIC's Marc Tracy wrote ESPN cited the "technicality that it was a 'trademark issue.'” It "wasn’t until Monday, after the latest collaboration was published on 'Frontline'’s website and aired on 'OTL,' that ESPN also requested that language describing collaboration not be used, and that it became clear the collaboration itself was coming to an end." Aronson confirmed that, "under their arrangement, 'Frontline' did not have editorial control over 'OTL' segments and ESPN did not have editorial control over the 'Frontline' documentary." Aronson: "We have weighed in on each other's work, but we don't have control." Tracy concludes it "seems hard to believe that ESPN simply decided this was an unacceptable disservice to its partner league and therefore was shutting it down." But it is "equally hard to believe that ... ESPN professes to have would let the question of editorial control rip up such a fruitful partnership." Tracy: "I do not sense flagrantly foul play ... A general overcarefulness at the media outlet sports fans depend on the most" (NEWREPUBLIC.com, 8/22). ESPN Senior VP/Corporate Communications Chris LaPlaca said, "We should've paid attention to the marketing and the branding much sooner. That was a mistake on our part. We simply had not earlier focused on the implications of the marketing and promotion strategy around the documentaries." The HOLLYWOOD REPORTER's Erik Hayden noted ESPN had "touted the project on multiple occasions and also partnered with Frontline to create the concussion tracker, Concussion Watch." Fainaru said, "No one is questioning the journalism. We’ve been assured by ESPN that the commitment to the journalism that we’ve been doing, including the journalism that we’ve been doing with Frontline, is completely intact and they support it" (HOLLYWOODREPORTER.com, 8/22). DEADLINE.com's Lisa De Moraes noted Bray talked publicly about the show this summer during the TCA Press Tour. Bray: "Our journalism has been very strong on this issue -- so strong that we partner with Frontline." He added, "We respect Frontline greatly. They respect us. And the NFL is going to have to understand that" (DEADLINE.com, 8/22).

TAKE AIM AT CONFLICT OF INTERESTS: THE ATLANTIC's Abby Ohlheiser wrote because ESPN "makes a lot of money from broadcasting NFL games, there is concern of an acute conflict of interest going on between the editorial and business sides" of the net. ESPN "often cited its collaboration as a rebuttal to that line of questioning" (THEATLANTIC.com, 8/22). VARIETY's Brian Steinberg wrote the move is "sure to raise the usual questions about ESPN's ability to feature independent, hard-hitting sports journalism when so much of its business hinges on its ability to secure rights to televise big sporting events." The history "makes the Wednesday split surprising" (VARIETY.com, 8/22). In Denver, Joanne Ostrow wrote, "ESPN wouldn’t want to bite the NFL hand that feeds them. In PR terms, it’s worse to be seen backing out of a journalistic endeavor than to never have gotten involved in the first place" (DENVERPOST.com, 8/22).
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