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Coveted NFL viewership, dollars detract from quality of coverage

Even though we celebrated Labor Day earlier this week, and most of the country’s workforce enjoyed a respite, a larger national holiday will be commemorated Wednesday.

The start of the NFL’s regular season.

Laugh all you want, but there is nothing that can match fans’ devotion to the nation’s professional football league, nor the media’s insatiable desire for its content. Last year, nine of the top 10-rated TV programs were Sunday night games broadcast on NBC. Networks are paying astronomical fees to gain access to the NFL and are creating ways to promote the league through programming that is just a couple steps short of propaganda. No matter how strong baseball is or what ridiculous sums college conferences reap with their ever-expanding TV contracts, nothing can touch the NFL for a popularity that cuts across almost every demographic. Because of this, the media spends long hours trying to concoct ways to climb aboard the league’s high-speed train, the better to attract readers, listeners and viewers – sometimes all at once.

It’s an interesting relationship, because each entity is profiting from the other. The NFL gets its games televised, as well as ancillary programming that serves practically as 60 minutes of advertising. The media outlets have the ability to air live action and supporting shows that bring millions of eyes to their outlets. The goal of NBC’s Olympics coverage was to get people to watch NBC. That succeeded. NBC, ESPN, CBS, Fox and the other media members with direct access to the NFL are trying to do the same thing. The great part about it is the season lasts five months, rather than just two weeks. That’s nearly a half-year of promos for other shows, opportunities to engage advertisers in a profitable pursuit and co-op their participation into other avenues and big ratings that create good feelings and institutional momentum.

The NFL doesn’t quite tell the media outlets with which it partners how it wants things to be done, but it isn’t going to let them do whatever they want, either. Back in 2004, when ESPN cancelled “Playmakers”, a series loosely based on the NFL that included plotlines that didn’t exactly cast professional football in the best light, it did so to avoid risking a breach in its relationship with the NFL. Such a rift became possible when then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue called former Disney (ESPN is owned by the Mouse) CEO Michael Eisner to complain.

In Karl Taro Greenfield’s excellent Business Week piece about ESPN that ran August 30, he cites former ESPN president George Bodenheimer’s quotation in the book, Those Guys Have All the Fun, the oral history of ESPN. “At the end of the day, I made a decision not to continue to produce something that was upsetting to one of our major partners. It wasn’t good business.”

For all of the journalistic landmines in that statement, the upshot is that Bodenheimer is right. In the 21st century, when leagues and teams and conferences and schools command huge dollars for their live events – and draw big audiences to them – media outlets must be careful not to upset the entities they air. Do that, and you risk irrelevance due to an inability to gain the needed access.

Hard-boiled newsmen of days gone by might wretch at the thought of sacrificing anything to the subjects they cover, but they didn’t have to exist in the competitive landscape that prevails today. Anyone who upsets the NFL Leviathan could well find itself on the outside during the next round of rights negotiations. As long as Turner wants to broadcast NFL games, and ESPN and NBC would love to expand their roles, the league can dictate policy a little. Were it a niche sport, like hockey, it wouldn’t have the same power. But since it’s a $9 billion athletic starship, the NFL can influence how it is covered.

It is instructive to pay attention to how the league is covered this season. Watch how storylines emerge and get tremendous coverage. Bad news is often reported but not analyzed, the better to focus on things that put the NFL in a better light. In purely journalistic terms, it’s a shame. The confluence of media and league is not healthy. But in terms of the 21st century reality, where competition within the 24/7 news cycle is cutthroat and access to the valuable live events that drive ratings is precious, concessions have to be made.

Media executives will try to convince us that there is no such compromise, but their programming argues otherwise. By profiting from the NFL’s tremendous popularity, they ensure the ability to promote other parts of their empires. But there is a cost. The continued growing together of media and what they cover has created a marketplace where it is nearly impossible to cover things with complete objectivity. Too much is at stake. As we celebrate the start of America’s favorite season, it behooves us to pay closer attention to how the NFL is covered and understand the difference between real news and promotional considerations.

Happy NFL Day!

Michael Bradley is a writer, broadcaster and teacher headquartered in suburban Philadelphia. His written work has appeared in Sporting News, ESPN the Magazine, Athlon Sports, Hoop and Slam, among others. He is a host on 97.5 the Fanatic in Philadelphia and contributes analysis for Yahoo! Sports Radio and Sirius Mad Dog Radio. He appears on CSNPhilly.com, writes a weekly column on Philadelphia Magazine’s “Philly Post” and has authored 26 books. He teaches sports journalism at Saint Joseph’s, Villanova and Neumann Universities.

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