ESPN president John Skipper (pictured) has denied that pressure from either Disney or the NFL was behind the U.S. network’s decision to pull out of a PBS coproduction investigating head injuries in American football.
The news comes after ESPN confirmed last Thursday (August 22) that it would be stripping its name, logo and credit from the forthcoming documentary League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis, which it has been coproducing with PBS’s ‘Frontline’ division for the last 15 months.
‘Frontline’ will continue with plans to air the special, which it promises will look at whether “the NFL has covered up the risks of football on the brain,” in two parts, on October 8 and 15.
In an interview with ESPN’s official independent ombudsman Robert Lipsyte, published on the ESPN website, Skipper opined that the first trailer PBS released for the special appeared to be “sensational” and “over the top” in parts.
He cited a lack of editorial control and concerns about the ESPN brand as the key reasons behind the decision to pull out of the PBS partnership, saying he chose to “remove the brand because we did not control the content.”
The ESPN ombudsman expressed concern over the decision, which he stated could give the appearance that the network has been compromised by commercial pressures from the NFL – which has close ties to the network – or by ESPN’s parent company, Disney.
Skipper confirmed he had had discussions with senior execs at both companies, but insisted that there was no instruction from either party to pull out of the coproduction.
“I am the only one at ESPN who has to balance the conflict between journalism and programming,” Skipper said.
His comments came as an official ESPN network statement separately said: “Because ESPN is neither producing nor exercising editorial control over the ‘Frontline’ documentaries, there will be no co-branding involving ESPN on the documentaries or their marketing materials.”
In a joint statement published on the PBS website, ‘Frontline’ exec producer David Fanning and deputy EP Raney Aronson said: “We regret ESPN’s decision to end a collaboration that has spanned the last 15 months and is based on the work of ESPN reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, as well as ‘Frontline’s own original journalism.
“ESPN’s decision will in no way affect the content, production or October release of ‘Frontline’s League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis. The film is grounded in the Fainaru brothers’ forthcoming book, also titled League of Denial, and the authors will continue to participate in the production and be featured in the documentary.
“The film is still being edited and has not been seen by ESPN news executives,” the statement added, “although we were on schedule to share it with them for their editorial input. The two-hour documentary and accompanying digital reporting will honor ‘Frontline’s rigorous standards of fairness, accuracy, transparency and depth.”
Check out PBS’s trailer for the documentary below: