ESPN on Thursday unexpectedly withdrew from a reporting collaboration with Frontline investigating brain injuries in National Football League players, the New York Times reports.
“League of Denial,” a two-part special premiering in October, was Frontline‘s first editorial partnership with the cable sports network, which pays the NFL more than $1 billion a year to broadcast Monday Night Football.
The Times, citing unnamed sources with direct knowledge of the situation, said ESPN’s role “came under intense pressure by the league . . . after a trailer for the documentary was released Aug. 6, the day that the project was discussed at a Television Critics Association event in Beverly Hills, Calif.”
The NFL denies that. “At no time did we formally or informally ask them to divorce themselves from the project,” Greg Aiello, NFL spokesperson, told the newspaper.
Chris LaPlaca, an ESPN spokesperson, said it was ending its association with Frontline “because it did not have editorial control of what appeared on the public television public affairs series,” the newspaper reported.
Another ESPN spokesperson, Josh Krulewitz, told the Washington Post that the network’s withdrawal from the Frontline project was unrelated to its agreements with the league. “We had no editorial control [over the PBS documentary] and weren’t comfortable lending our branding to it. . . . In hindsight we should have reached this conclusion much sooner, and that was a mistake on our part. Obviously, it’s a strange situation.”
However, Raney Aronson, series deputy e.p., told the Times that ESPN executives understood that Frontline would have editorial control of what it televised or posted online, and ESPN would control what it televised or posted. Frontline had worked “in lock step,” she said, with Vince Doria, ESPN’s senior vice president and director of news, and Dwayne Bray, senior coordinating producer in ESPN’s news-gathering unit.
But in conversations last Friday and Monday with both, she was told that ESPN did not want its logo to be connected to the films.
“It didn’t appear that it was their decision,” Aronson told the Times.
Editorial partnerships are becoming increasingly important to the longtime pubTV investigative series, now accounting for more than half of its reports.