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Inflated Super Bowl coverage endorses NFL initiatives rather than investigates

It is an event expected to draw upwards of 100 million viewers, easily on track to be the most-watched television program in history.

So I understand why NBC is slicing and dicing “coverage” of Super Bowl XLVI within an inch of its life, beginning game day programming more than six hours before the game’s 6:25 p.m. start Sunday and folding in broadcasts from Indianapolis everywhere from “Access Hollywood” and the Weather Channel to The Golf Channel, CNBC, Spanish language channel Telemundo and “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.”

 “This is not just a football game,” said Sam Flood, executive producer for NBC Sports and the NBC Sports Network, in a conference call with reporters. “It’s the biggest event in America. It’s a national holiday. We’re going to celebrate it.”

I’m just hoping that, in the middle of all that celebrating and cheerleading, there’s a little room for some actual, you know, journalism and fact-finding.

Curiously, NBC isn’t the only culprit here. The Sunday before the big game, CBS’ “60 Minutes” unfurled a feature story on NFL commissioner Roger Goodell that felt like a big, wet kiss – complete with testimonials from team owners on the football field, talking about how much they love the guy who wrangled TV contracts ensuring they will continue to receive their $10 billion in annual revenue, carved up among 32 teams.

No talk about the blackout rules that keep those teams unable to sell game tickets in a depressed economic climate from airing their games on local television. No challenges to the bald observation that the NFL is a legal “cartel,” taking in tax money from communities to build giant stadiums, which enrich a small pool of owners and players.

No talk about last year’s lockout or how Goodell got it resolved. A lightning-fast gloss-over the issue of concussions and why players wind up refusing to admit they have them, playing in games where they can injure themselves further.

But this is the level of coverage we have come to expect from TV operations – even the venerated “60 Minutes” – when it comes to the cash cow which is the National Football League.

NBC sits in a worse position, mostly because it’s a fourth-place network with no programming even close to the viewership of NFL broadcasts. During the week of Jan. 23, just one NBC broadcast ranked among the top ten highest-rated shows of that week: the Pro Bowl game, which drew more than 12 million people to land in 8th place.

So don’t expect any close looks at whether Indianapolis is really benefiting from the Super Bowl or Lucas Oil Stadium, which cost $720 million to build but the home team Indianapolis Colts have only paid $100 million to fund.

“I remember sitting with (Colts owner) Jim Irsay, as he was there trying to get Lucas oil Stadium here, sitting with the state legislature telling them how important football was to central Indiana,” said former Colts coach and NBC analyst Tony Dungy on a conference call with reporters this week.

“When I flew in here Sunday night and saw downtown and all the things they had going on, it just made me really proud of Indianapolis and central Indiana and what they’ve done,” Dungy added.

And the love-fest hasn’t stopped with NBC or its various platforms. Watching the Tampa NBC affiliate on Thursday evening, I saw a story on the hazards of buying counterfeit NFL merchandise, sparked by an announcement made in Indianapolis about 42,000 items seized across the country, localized with interviews from a local government official and a store owner who sells official merchandise.

There was, of course, no information on whether any counterfeit merchandise was seized in Tampa. And statements by government officials that fake NFL gear might be made with dyes or materials which could cause rashes was passed along with no challenge by the reporter.

What the report really did, was urge the viewer to reinforce the NFL’s copyrights, pushing fans to avoid cheaper, knockoff shirts and hats to keep the league’s merchandising profits strong.

I much prefer the story Jonnelle Marte told on Smartmoney.com Monday, highlighting the 10 things you’ll probably never see the NFL or a Super Bowl partner discuss before the game.

Marte’s list included the high price of attending the game (tickets priced at $4,000 or higher and plane tickets reaching $2,000); the criminals drawn by such big events, including scalpers and prostitutes; the $10 billion wagered on the game this year and the reality that projections of local profits from such events often are overblown or unproven.

To be sure, there’s lots I can’t wait to see Sunday, from Matt Lauer’s interview with President Obama (I happen to think the “Today” show host is TV’s most underrated interviewer) to a feature story on New York Giants linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka, a kid who grew up in Indianapolis, but whose grandfather was the first prime minister of Uganda.

But it would be nice if, in the middle of all the overhyped, overblown pageantry, some corner of NBC News or NBC Sports took a little time to cast a skeptical eye at the biggest sports game in the world.

(NBC Sports Network’s “Costas Tonight: Live From the Super Bowl” town hall discussion Thursday in Indianapolis, featuring talk about concussions with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and ex-players suing the NFL, was a wonderful start).

Because, in the end, we need more than images of a great celebration from the broadcasters bringing us the Big Game.

We need honesty and substance, so that we can trust everything we see onscreen.

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the Tampa Bay (Fla.) Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. He also provides regular commentary for National Public Radio and has been published by the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed.

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