2ND UPDATE, 10:46 AM: Looks like there will be some last-minute editing to PBS‘ two-hour Frontline special League Of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis. This morning the league announced a settlement worth $765M has been reached in Philadelphia federal court between the NFL and more than 4,500 former players. If approved by Senior U.S. District Court Judge Anita Brody, the deal would fund medical exams, concussion-related compensation and medical research. The proposed settlement comes after months of mediation between the sides and probably guarantees that the NFL wouldn’t be required to disclose internal files about what it knew about concussion issues and whether it hid findings of internal committees to protect the the league. The timing is right for an agreement: The NFL’s regular season starts in a week, and the Frontline special airs on PBS stations October 8. It previously had been scheduled to air in two parts over two weeks.
UPDATE, AUGUST 23 AM: PBS’ upcoming Frontline two-parter about head injuries sustained by NFL players appears to have hit the motherlode with the pullout of ESPN from the joint project. League Of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis exec producers announced last night on the program’s website that ESPN had withdrawn as a partner with Frontline on the docu. ESPN says it’s a “branding” issue. Anonymous sources tell The New York Times — you know it’s coming — that ESPN, which reportedly pays the NFL upwards of $1 billion a year for Monday Night Football rights, succumbed to pressure from the NFL. Not so, says the NFL. Viewer awareness of the upcoming docu, which debuts on PBS stations on October 8 and October 15, just went up 1,000%.
PREVIOUS, AUGUST 22 PM:ESPN has pulled out of its joint investigation with PBS’ Frontline into the NFL’s response to head injuries among players. “You may notice some changes to our League Of Denial and Concussion Watch websites,” the documentary producers said this evening in a statement on the Frontline website. From now on, at ESPN’s request, we will no longer use their logos and collaboration credit on these sites and on our upcoming film League Of Denial,” Frontline exec producer David Fanning and deputy exec producer Raney Aronson said in the statement.
The documentary film is being made with ESPN reporters Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru Wada, who have written a book on the subject. ESPN said the network’s call to pull out was a “branding” decision: “Because ESPN 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,” ESPN said tonight in a statement. “The use of ESPN’s marks could incorrectly imply that we have editorial control. As we have in the past, we will continue to cover the concussion story through our own reporting.
“This is a branding issue, not a commentary on the documentaries or the Fainaru brothers’ book. The people at Frontline and the Fainaru brothers are respected journalists,” ESPN added. “In hindsight, we should have reached this conclusion much sooner. That was a mistake on our part. We simply had not earlier focused on the implications of the marketing and promotion strategy around the documentaries.”
In the statement on the Frontline site, the exec producers said, “We don’t normally comment on investigative projects in progress, but we regret ESPN’s decision to end a collaboration that has spanned the last 15 months and is based on the work of ESPN reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, as well as Frontline’s own original journalism,” the exec prods said in their statement.
“Over that time, we’ve enjoyed a productive partnership with ESPN’s investigative program, Outside The Lines, jointly publishing and co-branding several ground-breaking articles on our respective websites and on their broadcast. We’ve been in sync on the goals of our reporting: to present the deepest accounting so far of the league’s handling of questions around the long-term impact of concussions. This editorial partnership was similar to our many other collaborations with news organizations over the years,” continued the exec producers of the docu, which will debut in October on the WGBH-produced news program.
“ESPN’s decision will in no way affect the content, production or October release,” they said, adding that the film “is grounded in the Fainaru brothers’ forthcoming book, also titled League of Denial, and the authors will continue to participate in the production and be featured in the documentary.
“The film is still being edited and has not been seen by ESPN news executives, although we were on schedule to share it with them for their editorial input. The two-hour documentary and accompanying digital reporting will honor Frontline’s rigorous standards of fairness, accuracy, transparency and depth.”
At a Q&A for League of Denial, held at the recent Summer TCA Press Tour, ESPN producer Dwayne Bray, who was onstage as a member of the show’s panel, was asked about ESPN’s participation in the film, given its business deals with the NFL, and about the ESPN partnership with Frontline on the film. “We’ve been reporting the story for a very long time, and we’re going to continue to report the story,” he said of ESPN and its coverage of NFL player head injuries. ESPN is a “bifurcated company,” he said. “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.”
ESPN was comfortable with the partnership, he insisted, calling Frontline the “gold standard of longform investigative documentaries,” and ESPN “the gold standard” for sports journalism. “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.”