Lord Grantham has been a boon to PBS. Now, the lords of sports have offered up another gift to public broadcasting.
ESPN has pulled out of its collaboration with PBS on a “Frontline” documentary exploring the effects of head injuries on NFL players. The New York Times indicates ESPN, which airs ample NFL programming, capitulated to league pressure and halted its involvement.
The NFL is facing a lawsuit from former players charging it concealed information about the dangers of the injuries that have left many players suffering from post-career brain damage. These days, it seems barely a week goes by without multiple players suffering concussions. And, the league is highly sensitive about its image now as fostering a culture of violence.
The NFL denies it pressured ESPN to back out of the "Frontline"
programming scheduled for October. ESPN says a loss of editorial control was the impetus.
But from PBS’s standpoint, just as it stumbled across a hit with “Downton Abbey” and fascinating Lord Grantham character, the controversy is an unexpected prize.
Whether the NFL threatened ESPN to drop its involvement or not, even the possibility that the two most powerful entities in sports knocked heads over the documentary should generate viewer interest. Maybe more than any promotion from ESPN, depending on the level the network intended to give it. A scent of censorship has a way of spurring attention. And there's an element of “it’s not the content, it’s the cover-up” that PBS is likely to benefit from.
PBS might be too staid, but the controversy is tailor-made for a promotional blitz with a variation of: “Watch the film the NFL didn’t want you to see.” Artful language would need to be applied -- unless proof emerges that ESPN chief John Skipper kowtowed to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell -- but the damning New York Times coverage offers grist. Of course, the press may very well do PBS's heavy lifting -- gratis -- and stoke the fire up until the documentary’s debut.
Called “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis,” the programming is based on a coming book by a pair of ESPN reporters. At times, the trailer feels like a highlight video of punishing hits involving current and former players -- one absorbing a blow appears to be former Philadelphia Eagle and now ESPN commentator Ron Jaworski.
At one point, an individual says of retired NFLers: “These players come down with dementia and then Alzheimer’s and then they’re gone.”
Fans, including President Obama, are cognizant of the increasing risks playing NFL football brings. Some may cringe when a vicious hit occurs.
But, it hasn’t hurt the popularity of the game. And, no matter what new angles “Frontline” might unveil in its investigation, there’s been a ton of coverage about the long-term impact of competition already. Unfortunately, many fans may be fatigued by the reporting.
So, short of proof the NFL knew players were at risk for brain injuries and covered it up, anything new that is uncovered wouldn’t seem to create much attention during a time of year when the sports scene is exceedingly busy. That's another area where the perception of NFL vs. ESPN should help PBS.
The documentary’s producers have retaliated against ESPN’s claims about loss of editorial control. They say on a "Frontline" Web site they've worked together for 15 months and “been in sync” over the period. Before the network's goodbye, the producers say ESPN news executives hadn’t seen the film and would have had an opportunity to offer “editorial input” as the editing process continues.
PBS should keep playing the “we don’t understand what happened” card and let viewers guess. The opportunity to decide for themselves should be a draw.
If the NFL doesn't want you to see it, it must be good. But, for this to get the viewership that PBS (probably) wants, they're still going to need to promise those bone-crunching hits that are the reason for this program in the first place, and the reason fans love to watch the NFL. A cover up won't be good enough unless fans get to see the blood.