So why the hell did ESPN pull out of its collaborative relationship with PBS and Frontline? PBS's statement says that ESPN news executives were supposed to have "editorial input" into the League of Denial documentary. ESPN's statement says the network backed out because it had no "editorial control" over the doc.
ESPN is also saying, sotto voce, that the network screwed up and that it should have thought of this sooner. Whoops! Well, at a Television Critics Association panel on Aug. 6, a member of the audience asked ESPN producer Dwayne Bray (who has been working with PBS on this project), "How is ESPN going to go up against the NFL when they are a major rights holder and they basically have profited immensely from the culture of violence that is in the NFL?" Bray, in answering, said that the partnership between PBS and ESPN was well thought out. Here's his response, according to a transcript from the TCA (emphasis mine):
Well, we don’t see this as ESPN going up against the NFL. People can in their soundbites, they are allowed their opinion. We just see this as reporting the story. Again, we’ve been reporting the story for a very long time, and we’re going to continue to report the story.
I think one of the interesting things about ESPN is it’s sort of a bifurcated company. You do have the business partners on one side, but you also have the editorial production side. And our journalism has been very strong on this issue and so strong that we partner with FRONTLINE. FRONTLINE is about as it’s the gold standard, I’ve said before, of long form investigative documentaries. ESPN is the gold standard for sports journalism from covering the games to investigative journalism. Nobody does it as comprehensively as we do it. So we made a conscious decision when we were presented with this opportunity to literally get in bed with FRONTLINE. We’ve had other nonprofits, universities that have asked us to partner with them. We’ve never done a partnership. And from the FRONTLINE standpoint, I think this is only the second time domestically that they’ve done a partnership with a broadcast partner. So we respect FRONTLINE greatly. They respect us. And the NFL is going to have to understand that.
So, what changed? Do you know more? Email me.
Photo above, left to right: ESPN’s Dwayne Bray, Harry Carson, Frontline deputy executive producer Raney Aronson, Frontline producer Michael Kirk