NFL's power over its broadcast outlets has gone too far
I watched the first Super Bowl in 1967, and it was one of the great TV viewing experiences of my life.
The resonant, rock-steady call of play-by-play announcer Ray Scott and the 35-10 throttling that my beloved Green Bay Packers gave the brash Kansas City Chiefs was all any teenage sports fan could hope for — and then some. The pageantry, primitive as it was by today's outrageous standards, was pretty exciting to a 17-year-old boy.
I have watched every Super Bowl since, hoping to recapture that TV high. But I won't be watching this one Sunday on NBC.
I made that decision during the divisional-round AFC playoff game Jan. 10 between the Ravens and the New England Patriots, when the NBC cameras showed Roger Goodell in the stands during a timeout and NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth praised the NFL commissioner's integrity.
Play-by-play announcer Al Michaels joined the PR effort by telling viewers that an internal review paid for by the NFL had, "after analyzing millions of pages of documents," concluded that there was "no evidence" that Goodell had ever seen the video of Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee, Janay Palmer, in the face in a New Jersey casino elevator before the tabloid website TMZ published it in September.
"Pimps and propaganda puppet dogs" I wrote in my notebook as I watched and listened to the two shilling for Goodell.
Over-the-top in my choice of language? Sure, but I was trying to find words for the visceral disgust I felt toward two announcers for whom I once had much respect.
Ultimately, the source of my disgust ran deeper than these two debasing themselves in trying to whitewash Goodell's handling of the Rice matter. Their behavior made me realize a larger truth that I felt but had not been able to articulate: The NFL now has near-total control of some networks and cable channels because of the way its telecasts can raise their ratings — and generate hundreds of millions of dollars in annual profits.
It's not news that the networks and cable channels like ESPN are in business with the NFL. In the case of network TV, that goes back to the first Super Bowl in 1967 and well beyond.
But almost everyone thinks it's TV that is driving the bus — telling the NFL which game to "flex" to Sunday nights and which to reschedule earlier in the day, for example. When fans with tickets for a game they think is going to be played at 1 p.m. find out a few days before that the kickoff has been shifted to 4:30 p.m. or 8 p.m., they are told to blame TV, as if TV is calling the shots and ruining the purity of the game.
In reality, though, it's the NFL that has come to so dominate the relationship with TV that no network or cable channel would dare say or do anything to jeopardize the cash flow from televising games.
And so, no matter how badly the NFL and/or its players behave on domestic violence, concussions, performance-enhancing drugs, drunken driving or guns, television will never truly call them out. Instead, you'll have Collinsworth telling us about Goodell's "integrity."
The NFL first came to prime time on ABC in 1970. But the game-changer in the relationship between the NFL and television came in 2010 when "NBC Sunday Night Football" became the No. 1 show in prime-time TV, topping all sitcoms, dramas and reality shows. That had never happened for a weekly sporting event, and the difference between prime-time and Sunday-afternoon dollars is exponential.
ABC's "Monday Night" package never cracked the top 10. But in today's media landscape of seemingly infinite on-demand choices, live NFL coverage has proved to be one of the few programming genres that can still attract a mass audience. As the media ground shifted, NFL telecasts have become infinitely more valuable, and Goodell controls the supply of games the way mine owners controlled the diamond industry in South Africa.
ESPN enjoys the same kind of relationship with the NFL on Monday nights that NBC has on Sundays. Goodell further expanded the supply and handed some of the goodies to CBS on Thursday nights last year — a deal that was recently renewed for the coming season. CBS splits a 16-game schedule with the league-owned NFL Network.
Quick, tell me when this season you heard anyone on any CBS Sports broadcast criticize Goodell?
How about on any NBC Sports broadcast?
Someone did at ESPN when Bill Simmons called Goodell a liar in a podcast on his "B.S. Report." This was after a widely criticized performance by Goodell in a news conference Sept. 19 about the video published by TMZ showing Rice's punch in the elevator.
Simmons was suspended for three weeks, with ESPN saying that he failed to "operate within ESPN's journalistic standards."
Would those be the same high journalistic standards that a few months later ESPN would employ when it gave Janay Rice right of final approval as to what part of her interview with ESPN could be published?
Please. The hypocrisy that TV operations like ESPN exhibit in their "coverage" of the NFL would be laughable if it weren't so maddening.
I am sure having to report on the media aspects of the Rice case for a full year is what triggered my gag reflex when it comes to the relationships among the NFL, teams such as the Ravens and the media. The NFL's control over parts of the media extends right down to the local level.
I watched and wrote about the May 16 TV news conference at Ravens headquarters during which Janay Rice said she deeply regretted her role in the casino incident. As if hosting the news conference wasn't bad enough, the Ravens tweeted her words of regret on their official website — and then quickly took them down when the team came under fire for doing so. She later said the Ravens suggested that she include such words of apology.
And I listened incredulously to some of the local TV and radio announcers in town as they blamed the disaster of a news conference on Ray Rice's attorneys — saying it was their understanding (based on anonymous sources, of course), that the Ravens were against hosting it.
The problem in getting honest reporting about the Ravens at the local level is not just the result of the team controlling access to reporters. Just as the networks and ESPN have relationships with the NFL, local stations such as WBAL have the same kinds of relationships with teams to broadcast preseason games and coaches' shows.