SBD/October 10, 2013/Media

ESPN Withdrawal, Decision To Show Excerpts Boost "League Of Denial" Ratings

ESPN was always going to promote the book authored by the Fainaru brothers
ESPN withdrawing from Frontline's "League of Denial" documentary ending up being a "boon," as the attention paid to the net's "hasty decision made a lot of people aware" of the film, according to Richard Sandomir of the N.Y. TIMES. The move "potentially jeopardized the possibility that ESPN would carry excerpts from it on 'SportsCenter' and 'Outside the Lines' and on ESPN.com." ESPN was "always going to promote" the book by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru on which the film was based, but "hyping only the book might have had little effect on the documentary." Frontline Deputy Exec Producer Raney Aronson-Rath said that she had been "reassured after ESPN’s unexpected departure from the project that the sports channel would still try to show excerpts." ESPN Senior Coordinating Producer Dwayne Bray "about two weeks ago ... called Aronson-Rath to resurrect the relationship." He wanted to "work out a deal to carry excerpts, and he had the backing" of ESPN President John Skipper. Aronson-Rath said that three clips were picked, one for "SportsCenter" and two for "OTL," and they "began to run last week." Skipper "told a somewhat different version: that ESPN had had every intention of running excerpts, even after it withdrew from the collaboration." Skipper: "That was part of our original support for the Fainaru brothers." Sandomir reports the decision to show excerpts, after the "flap caused by ESPN’s withdrawal from the project, apparently increased" the film's audience. Nielsen data shows that it "drew an average of 2.2 million viewers," which is "well above the program’s average of 1.5 million viewers." Frontline also had "one of its heaviest days of traffic to its Web site." Skipper said of his move to end the collaboration, "I wish I’d made the decision a year ago. I still think it was the right decision, while I understand that it opened us up for appropriate criticism." Skipper added that "no one at the NFL has called to rebuke him for showing excerpts from the documentary" (N.Y. TIMES, 10/10).

EYE-OPENER: In Newark, Dave D'Alessandro writes the film was "an epiphany for some of us," as it "carefully traces how the NFL concealed the truth about concussions over two decades, from the appalling deceit of the Paul Tagliabue era to the pathetic damage control of Roger Goodell’s tenure." This is "not just a stain on our national pastime," it is "a public health crisis that extends to every level of the sport" (Newark STAR-LEDGER, 10/10). In Buffalo, Jerry Sullivan writes after mentioning the film's title to 10 members of the Bills organization, including coach Doug Marrone, he "got blank stares in return." There will "always be denial in NFL players," and some of the Bills "seemed blithely ignorant" of the film (BUFFALO NEWS, 10/10).

GETTING THE PULSE OF THE LEAGUE: SI's Peter King noted many NFL execs feel "League of Denial" was an "extremely one-sided airing of the issue," which is one reasons why people associated with the league "didn't cooperate much at all with Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru." The execs felt like for a "long time doing the research on this story that the two ESPN reporters were slanted way against the NFL." King: "I read a lot of what they wrote on this story and I thought it was very well done, very well thought out and very well researched stuff. I thought anybody who watched the 'Frontline' show on PBS has to come away thinking that, 'It's incumbent on the NFL right now to do everything that it possibly can to, with independent neurologists at games, to be really looking at the issue of head trauma'" ("PTI," ESPN, 10/9).
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