Walt Disney’s ESPN in News or Entertainment Business?

 

Make no mistake, the Walt Disney Company’s ESPN cable TV networks are not set up to be journalism bastions.

There were two stories recently reported in the New York Times, which clearly illustrated what ESPN is all about—fantasy, not reality.

Disney’s sports franchise pulled out of a partnership with PBS’s “Frontline” to produce a two-part series on head injuries suffered by NFL players. The New York Times reported that the National Football League pressured the very company that pays them billions of dollars to get out of the “League of Denial” presentation.

Then, the New York Times carried another piece on the paper’s front page about the ESPN partnership with the University of Louisville and how the TV network has been a critical component of the rise of the school’s football program.

ESPN = not a bastion of journalism.

Louisville became an ESPN franchise and in many ways lets the cable TV company call many shots. The University of Louisville is not the only school to take ESPN money and do whatever the Connecticut-based TV entity wants.

American journalism is broken.

Newspapers, which routinely broke major stories about major infractions in college sports programs, are dying. Radio deregulation from the days of President Jimmy Carter has wiped out the medium as a source of news gathering. Meanwhile, television journalism put forth by Sumner Redstone’s CBS, Comcast’s NBC, Rupert Murdoch’s FOX, Disney’s ABC and Time Warner’s CNN is a bad joke.

It is hard to believe that ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” division got involved with PBS’s “Frontline” to produce a series that could hurt them with their NFL partner in the first place.

There are some real legitimate journalists who do work at ESPN and most of them are with the “Outside the Lines” show. But ESPN’s milieu is showing sports highlights and promoting leagues mixed in with some really awful sports “reporters” shows featuring know-nothing sportswriters in “debate.”

ESPN is in the business of creating sports programming not reporting on the long-term impact of head injuries on players who were employed by National Football League teams or got a scholarship to play big time college football at college football factories.

That sort of reporting goes against the grain of good journalism. They don’t want to run down their business partner and expose the bad side of the business, a side that customers, fans and marketing partnerships never want to blemish. Instead, ESPN wants to promote the fantasy of “the football hero.”

The partnerships between television networks and sports have been around for decades.

David Sarnoff’s NBC was the major catalyst in building today’s football. Sarnoff gave American Football League owners a huge multi-million dollar contract in 1964 after failing to land NFL rights.

AFL owners took that money and went out and signed college players starting in 1965 to large deals. The biggest contract was the agreement between the New York Jets’ ownership led by Sonny Werblin and University of Alabama quarterback Joe Namath in 1965.

Not too long after Sarnoff enriched AFL owners, the American and National leagues decided the money given to players was getting out of hand and they merged. It ended whatever leverage players had in playing AFL teams against NFL teams. That was on June 8, 1966 and by October, 1966 the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate and President Lyndon B. Johnson had all signed off on the NFL-AFL merger, which violated United States antitrust laws.

Sarnoff had lost a couple of times to CBS’s William Paley for NFL rights in 1962 and 1964. CBS played a major role in developing the NFL’s brand by airing a documentary in 1960 called “The Violent World of Sam Huff,” as part of the network’s Twentieth Century series which was hosted by legendary news anchor Walter Cronkite.

At that time, CBS controlled some of the television rights to various NFL teams and paid $500,000 to the owners of the Chicago Cardinals to help move that franchise to St. Louis (the money allegedly went to the Cardinals to move temporary seating from Comisky Park in Chicago to Busch Stadium in St. Louis) so that CBS’s local affiliate in Chicago could run a full slate of Chicago Bears road games, which were blacked out because the Cardinals franchise was playing Sunday afternoon home games.

Neither the Bears nor the Cardinals were seen much on local Chicago TV because of the blackout rule and the only time that Chicago games were on TV was when both the Bears and Cardinals were on the road together. The Chicago Cardinals franchise played only four games a year in Chicago during the team’s final seasons in the city. Two of those “home” games were farmed out to Minneapolis or Buffalo, N.Y., to open up the Chicago TV market for NFL games.

The foundation of the modern day NFL can be found in the Sports Broadcast Act of 1961, which was signed into law by President John F. Kennedy on Sept. 30 of that year. It gave all sports leagues in the United States the ability to bundle the franchise members into one package and league commissioners were able to sell the entity as one to television networks after putting the package to bid.

That’s where the problem of journalism versus reality comes to the forefront for ESPN.

ESPN has the rights to the NFL’s Monday night television package. At one time, ESPN and Turner sports shared a Sunday night cable TV package.

The Walt Disney Company has been a great NFL partner in that not only ESPN bestows billions on the NFL but there are numerous NFL related shows both on ESPN’s networks and ESPN’s radio affiliates. But ESPN no longer has the cable/phone company/satellite monopoly on sports. There are other networks that would gladly give the NFL billions such as Rupert Murdoch’s new FOX network and Comcast’s NBC Sports network.

If Disney’s ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” did something foolish like put the NFL in a bad light, the Monday night package could be awarded to one of the other cable competitors at contract renewal time.

Rupert Murdoch’s FOX news division isn’t going to do any documentaries hurting the NFL. Murdoch’s FOX empire was built on the NFL in the 1990s. Brian Roberts, who owns a team–the National Hockey League’s Philadelphia Flyers—and funds many sports teams is not going to rock the boat and dent the NFL shield. Both Murdoch and Roberts have over-the-air deals with the NFL.

You can bet the aging CBS franchise “60 Minutes,” which is no longer must-see TV won’t skewer the NFL. Sumner Redstone’s CBS sports cable network will not either.

Even though Time Warner’s Turner Sports doesn’t have the NFL, it is highly doubtful that CNN would ever do anything to hurt the NFL. After all, Time Warner is heavily involved in the sports business.

The United States’ biggest television news gathering services have too many ties and business relationships to do legitimate news reporting on sports.

Both the National Football League and college football have numerous problems that should be given attention but business alliances trump journalism.

In the 1980s, CBS’s Lawrence Tisch paid far too much money to keep the NFL and add Major League Baseball, which are nothing more than entertainment shows, and gutted the CBS News department because there was not enough money left over.

In 1991, Tisch’s brother Bob purchased 50 percent of the New York Giants. Tisch was unable to hold onto NFL rights in 1993, when Murdoch blew away NFL owners with his bid for the NFC package that CBS had. The NFL only shows loyalty to the dollar sign and Tisch lost the rights, despite having his brother as an NFL owner.

ESPN charges more than $5 a month per subscriber whether it is cable, satellite or phone company services. The Disney Company’s network is a cash cow and is vital to the health of the Walt Disney Company. With more than 100 million American subscribers, the company gets more than $6 billion in subscriber fees annually. The company is able to get multiple system operators (like Roberts and Comcast) to put the networks, ESPN, ESPN2 and others onto the basic extended tier because of the 1984 Cable TV Act (a piece of legislation that is remarkable in that it promotes socialism and was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, a free market proponent).

It’s the cable operator who makes the decision, not the subscriber, to place the channel on a tier that gives the consumer two options–take it or leave it. The goal for every network is to get onto the basic tier because all of the subscribers, whether they want a network or not, have to take it and pay.

ESPN doesn’t score well in ratings, but that’s not a problem. The perceived perception is that ESPN is gangbusters ratings wise and must-see TV and that is why cable operators place it on the basic extended tier. If there was a la carte availability, sports networks would have to raise rates and would have difficulty keeping even the hardcore sports fans.

“Frontline,” which gets funding from viewers and Congress through PBS, will apparently go ahead with the two-part special. It is unclear just how the series will proceed but the concussion issue will not go away.

The NFL has much to lose along with the college football industry and high school football industry with a close examination of head injuries and what happens to players as they leave the game and enter private life. The football industry cannot afford to show broken down players through its television partners for numerous reasons—all financial.

There is a concussion lawsuit (a $765 million settlement is pending) that pit former players against league owners because the players charge the owners did not give them all the information they should have had about head and neck injuries. Former players suffer from memory loss, depression and in some cases are dependent upon social security insurance and Medicare long before they reach 62 and 65 years of age.

That type of information might dissuade parents from letting their children become football heroes on the youth level and in secondary schools. School districts may be hit with huge insurance costs, which will have to be either absorbed by the schools, taxpayers or passed on directly to players’ parents.

Take away the NFL’s training grounds and the football industry will be severely impacted.

Yes, it’s better to not have that side of the game exposed. Walt Disney Company executives were asleep at the wheel when the “Outside the Lines” and “Frontline” partnerships was completed and the production went ahead. A partner cannot damage the product, even if that partner is paying for the product.

Don’t ever expect the United States to have major news networks ever to do anything but puff pieces on sports. There is far too much downside and no reward, other than maybe for a journalist to get a plaque on the wall saying “well done” for a hard-hitting show.

Editor’s Note: Evan Weiner is scheduled to appear as a guest on  MSNBC’s “Up with Steve Kornacki” to discuss this issue live on the show that airs from 8-10 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 1.

Evan Weiner, the United States Sports Academy’s 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award winner, can be reached at evanjweiner@gmail.com. He has written several e-books on sports, including, “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition,” which is available at www.bickley.com and Amazon.com.

 

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