By Joe Flint
1:04 PM EDT, August 23, 2013
ESPN's decision to cut ties to "League of Denial," a Frontline documentary it was involved in producing about how the National Football League has responded to head injuries suffered by players, has given the program a ton of free publicity.
PBS shows such as "Frontline" often get lots of critical acclaim, but struggle to capture a big audience. "Frontline" doesn't have the marketing budget that a program on a commercial network enjoys, which makes building awareness for its content incredibly challenging. Instead "Frontline" counts on critical buzz and a loyal audience interested in its in-depth journalism.
The news that ESPN, which airs "Monday Night Football," has requested to have its logo and collaborating credit dropped from Frontline's "League of Denial" and speculation that pressure from the National Football League may have been one of the factors behind that decision will get the program a lot more attention than PBS or "Frontline" could have hoped. Besides articles in newspapers and websites across the country about the controversy, it was also the talk of sports radio as well.
"League of Denial" is set to premiere in October.
The National Football League has denied that it put pressure on ESPN to bail out on "League of Denial." ESPN said it decided to withdraw because it had no editorial control over the documentary. "League of Denial" producers Raney Aronson-Rath and David Fanning said ESPN would have been shown the documentary before it aired and their input would have been taken into consideration.
The NFL is very protective of its brand and image, particularly related to the head injury issue. The league is involved in a lawsuit with hundreds of former players who contend the league hid what it knew about the possible long-term damage from playing the game.
While the NFL is publicly saying it put no pressure on ESPN, the league was less than thrilled that one of its business partners would be involved in a story that would cast it in a bad light.
ESPN on Friday again reiterated that its relationship with the league had no role in its decision to back out of "League of Denial."
"The decision to remove our branding was not a result of concerns about our separate business relationship with the NFL. As we have in the past including as recently as Sunday, we will continue to cover the concussion story aggressively through our own reporting," ESPN said.
Given that ESPN was involved in the making of "League of Denial" for more than a year, it is unclear as to why only now it has raised concerns about editorial control.
Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN will pay the NFL about $1.1 billion for its "Monday Night Football" package this season. Next season, a new long-term contract starts that will raise the average price to almost $2 billion per season.
Follow Joe Flint on Twitter @JBFlint.
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