ESPN’s decision this week to remove itself from an investigative documentary with PBS’s “Frontline” was the result of intense pressure from the National Football League, The New York Times reported.
According to the Times report, the league expressed its displeasure with ESPN’s role on the two-part documentary at a lunch meeting last week in Manhattan involving NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, NFL Network president Steve Bornstein, ESPN president John Skipper and ESPN executive vice president John Wildhack. The documentary, scheduled to air Oct. 8 and 15, will focus on an area for which the NFL has drawn considerable public criticism in recent years: the league’s poor record when it comes to addressing concussions suffered by its players.
ESPN and its parent company, Disney, have a longstanding broadcasting partnership with the NFL, paying the league more than $1 billion annually for the rights to air “Monday Night Football.”
The Times reported that the league’s concern about ESPN’s partnership with “Frontline” followed a Television Critics Association event on Aug. 6 in Beverly Hills, Calif., where the trailer for “League of Denial” was released. The documentary will coincide with the release of a book of the same name written by brothers Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, investigative reporters for ESPN who worked with “Frontline” on a handful of stories this year regarding player concussions. Their reporting will still contribute heavily to the documentary.
“Frontline” announced Thursday that ESPN had ended its partnership. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told the Times that it did not pressure ESPN into pulling out of the project. A spokesman for ESPN also denied that it was league pressure that led to the decision, telling SBNation in a statement that because the network 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,” the ESPN statement continued. “As we have in the past, we will continue to cover the concussion story through our own reporting.”
But Raney Aronson-Rath, deputy exectuive producer for “Frontline,” said that the nature of its collaboration with ESPN was well-understood by both sides since the project was announced last year. “Frontline” was to retain editorial control over what it broadcasted on television and posted its website, while ESPN would be given the same discretion. She told the Times that “Frontline” has worked “in lock step” with ESPN executives.
ESPN also gave no indication that it harbored concern with the editorial stipulations of the project at the Television Critics Association event earlier this month. It was there that coordinating producer Dwayne Bray defended ESPN’s coverage of concussions by trumpeting its work with “Frontline.”
“Our journalism has been very strong on this issue, so strong that we partner with Frontline!” Bray said, as quoted by ThinkProgress. “Frontline is the gold standard for long-form documentaries…ESPN and other media entities are being educated as well. I think we’ve shown a lot of restraint especially in recent years, in showing the big hits…We don’t show any of that footage willy-nilly. There is a lot of thought and discussion that goes into our highlights.”