SBD/August 26, 2013/Media

ESPN's Skipper Says Trailer Was Catalyst For End To "Frontline" Documentary Collaboration

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ESPN's Ombudsman sees a clumsy shuffling to cover a lack of due diligence
ESPN President John Skipper said a trailer for PBS' documentary on concussions was the "catalyst or starting episode" of what ultimately resulted in ESPN’s decision to part ways with “Frontline” on the project, according to ESPN Ombudsman Robert Lipsyte in his most recent column. Skipper called the PBS-ESPN collaboration a "loose arrangement." Sources indicated that Skipper had discussed ending the partnership with Disney Chair & CEO Bob Iger, as well as "lawyers at both Disney and ESPN." Skipper "confirmed that was true." However, Skipper said that he had "made the calls to advise those parties of his decision to 'remove the brand because we did not control the content.'" He "denied that anyone at Disney or the NFL demanded the action." Skipper: "I am the only one at ESPN who has to balance the conflict between journalism and programming." Lipsyte wrote the end of the collaboration "seems an unusually sloppy execution for ESPN, an organization that is usually much more buttoned-up." Lipsyte asks, "Was attention not being paid at ESPN? Too much time spent acquiring tennis rights, the SEC, Keith Olbermann, Nate Silver and Jason Whitlock, and not enough on journalism?" At best, "we've seen some clumsy shuffling to cover a lack of due diligence." At worst, "a promising relationship between two journalism powerhouses that could have done more good together has been sacrificed to mollify a league under siege." The best "isn't very good, but if the worst turns out to be true, it’s a chilling reminder how often the profit motive wins the duel." League commissioners are "always trying to strong-arm or sweet-talk ESPN executives, especially Skipper." How well they "succeed is a matter of constant speculation, both among Ombuddies and from some inside ESPN" (ESPN.com, 8/25).

OUT OF NOWHERE: SI.com's Richard Deitsch wrote ESPN's decision was "a shocking end to fruitful collaboration," and by PBS "announcing it before ESPN did, it left those in Bristol in a defensive public relations stance." "Frontline" Deputy Exec Producer Raney Aronson-Rath said that there was "no hint of discord." Deitsch: "Was this a bone being thrown to a business partner unhappy with an upcoming documentary, a case of not having editorial control, or a sea change in how ESPN operates journalistically for the toughest stories involving television partners?" The "next pressure point comes the second week of October" with the publication of "League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis," a book by ESPN's Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru that served as a basis for the "Frontline" project. ESPN staffers "who care about journalism are watching to see how aggressive the company will promote the book and documentary" (SI.com, 8/25).

HIGH STAKES: In Chicago, Rick Morrissey writes the "surprise" is not that ESPN ended its collaboration, but that it "ventured out of the bed it shares with the league in the first place." ESPN is "as monolithic as the NFL is." It "doesn’t think with a journalist’s brain when it comes to decisions that have to do with the bottom line." It "thinks with a suit’s mind," which "says that it doesn’t want to upset a corporate partner that brings the network billions of dollars" (CHICAGO SUN-TIMES, 8/26). In N.Y., Bob Raissman wrote ESPN with its decision "damaged the credibility of all its NFL voices." The "hammer used by the NFL is not hard to identify." If Commissioner Roger Goodell and other NFL execs "have a problem with you, it becomes clear your money might not be as good as another network’s in the next contract negotiation." Raissman asked, "With ESPN now facing competition from Fox Sports 1, does the Bristol Faculty want to even chance positioning itself to eventually lose 'Monday Night Football'? And if the NFL puts another package of games on the market (like Thursday night) doesn’t ESPN want a shot at that too?" Raissman: "That’s why it’s best to get on your knees and bark when the NFL tells you to" (N.Y. DAILY NEWS, 8/25). In Columbus, Rob Oller writes, "Size and strength are not synonymous. Large can be weak. Gigantic can lack backbone. Just look at ESPN. ... The cowardly lion comes to mind." It is "difficult to believe the NFL did not exert pressure." While the NBA "excels at spinning information, the NFL goes one better by controlling it." The NFL "delivers good times by keeping the worst of the bad news to a minimum, even when that means burying it by making a fist during lunch at a tony Manhattan restaurant" (COLUMBUS DISPATCH, 8/26).
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