NEW YORK — Pressure from the National Football League led to ESPN’s decision Thursday to pull out of an investigative project with “Frontline” regarding head injuries in the NFL, according to two people with direct knowledge of the situation.
ESPN, which is owned by the Walt Disney Co., pays the NFL more than $1 billion a year to broadcast “Monday Night Football,” a ratings juggernaut and cherished source of revenue for Disney.
“Frontline,” the PBS public affairs series, and ESPN had been working for 15 months on a two-part documentary, to be televised in October. But ESPN’s role came under intense pressure by the league, the two people said, 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.
Last week, several high-ranking officials convened a lunch meeting at Patroon, near the league’s Manhattan headquarters, according to the two people, who requested anonymity because they were prohibited by their superiors from discussing the matter publicly. It was a table for four: Roger Goodell, commissioner of the NFL; Steve Bornstein, president of the NFL Network; ESPN’s president, John Skipper; and John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive vice president for production.
At the combative meeting, the people said, league officials conveyed their displeasure with the direction of the documentary, which is expected to describe a narrative that has been captured in various news reports over the past decade: the league turning a blind eye to evidence that players were sustaining brain trauma on the field that could lead to profound, long-term cognitive disability.
Greg Aiello, a spokesman for the NFL, said Friday that the lunch meeting was requested by ESPN several weeks ago.
“At no time did we formally or informally ask them to divorce themselves from the project,” Aiello said. “We know the movie was happening and the book was happening, and we respond to them as best we can. We deny that we pressured them.”
Chris LaPlaca, an ESPN spokesman, said Thursday that ESPN’s decision was not based on any concerns about hurting its contractual relationship with the NFL. Rather, the network said in a statement, it was ending its official association with “Frontline” because it did not have editorial control of what appeared on the public television public affairs series.
But Raney Aronson-Rath, the deputy executive producer of “Frontline,” said ESPN executives had for more than a year understood the ground rules of the collaboration: “Frontline” would keep editorial control of what it televised or put on its websites, and ESPN would have control of everything it televised or posted on the Web.
“We were about to share a cut of our film with them,” Aronson-Rath said, “and we welcomed their input.” But ESPN would not continue with the venture with “Frontline,” which has won 15 Peabody Awards.
Even with ESPN no longer identified as a collaborator on the “Frontline” films, they may retain a clear ESPN flavor because they are heavily based on the reporting of Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, brothers and investigative reporters for ESPN. They are the authors of a book, “League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth,” set to be published Oct. 8.
The two-part documentary is scheduled to run Oct. 8 and 15.
“We’re obviously disappointed because the partnership has been a phenomenal one and we don’t totally understand what happened,” Fainaru-Wada said. Referring to ESPN, he added, “Nothing we’ve been told by anybody suggests that they’re backing off on the journalism.”
Aronson-Rath said that until last Friday, there had been no hint of trouble between “Frontline” and ESPN. She said that “Frontline” had worked “in lock step” 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 Doria and Bray, she was first told that ESPN did not want its logo to be connected to the films.
“It didn’t appear that it was their decision,” she said.
Aronson-Rath said that the Fainaru brothers started working with “Frontline” before ESPN was asked to collaborate.
“The response we got from them was terrific, and everyone was very excited,” she said.
The NFL was not supportive of the documentary. Aiello, the spokesman, said the league declined to make Goodell and other executives available for it. The league allowed the doctors who advise it on concussions to decide for themselves if they wanted to take part.
“Frontline” has interviewed several doctors who advise or have advised the league, but Aronson-Rath said three members of the NFL’s head, neck and spine committee had recently agreed to on-camera interviews before canceling them.
At the Television Critics Association event on Aug. 6, Bray spoke about how unusual the partnership with “Frontline” was for ESPN.
“I think one of the interesting things about ESPN is it’s sort of a bifurcated company,” he said. “You do have the business partners on one side, but you also have the editorial production side.”
“So we made a conscious decision when we were presented with this opportunity to literally get in bed with ‘Frontline,'” he added. “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.”
The NFL is engaged in a legal dispute in federal court with more than 4,000 players and their wives who have charged that the league concealed for years and even decades what it knew about the long-term dangers of repeated hits to the head. The NFL has rejected that argument and said it had issued warnings consistent with medical research available at the time.
The federal judge overseeing the case ordered both sides to mediation last month, and she is expected to rule on the NFL’s motion to dismiss the case on Sept. 3.
Disney’s hand has reached into the news operations of ESPN and its broadcast network ABC, often in ways that are subtle but visible to viewers. Like its rivals, the company sometimes uses morning-show coverage to advance its commercial interests.
At times the chairman and chief executive of Disney, Robert A. Iger, has directed ABC’s morning show, “Good Morning America,” to promote new Disney products (like the openings of theme park rides at Walt Disney World) and requested the participation of specific co-hosts, according to “GMA” staff members. The staffers spoke on condition of anonymity because they had not received permission to talk on the record about editorial decisionmaking.
The cross-promotion was evident earlier this week when George Stephanopoulos and other “GMA” co-hosts played a new Disney video game, Disney Infinity, and took turns calling it “revolutionary” and “amazing.” What they didn’t say was that Disney’s interactive division has been struggling for years, and this game is an expensive attempt at a turnaround.
The promotional segments usually begin or end with a reminder to viewers that Disney is the parent company of ABC News. Nonetheless, they are unsettling to journalism purists who say that television news coverage should be free of any corporate interference.
A spokeswoman for ABC News denied that Iger is involved in editorial decisions on any news program.
ESPN was once again the key driver of Disney’s profits in the second quarter.
“With so many of the major sports rights locked up for the next 10 years, given ESPN’s brand strength and its continued focus on investment and innovation, we remain confident in ESPN’s value and its position as the No. 1 brand in sports over the long-term,” Iger told investors on Aug. 6, the same day that the trailer for the documentary was released.