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ESPN Ombud: Frontline Collaboration Axed After John Skipper Saw 'Sensational' Trailer

The network president also confirmed a meeting with the NFL commissioner a week before the collaboration publicly ended.

ESPN Frontline TCA - H 2013
Getty Images
(L-R) Former NFL player Harry Carson, ESPN investigative reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, senior coordinating producer at ESPN Dwayne Bray and filmmaker Michael Kirk at a TCA panel in August.

An Aug. 6 TCA panel where ESPN and Frontline touted their partnership on a concussion investigation proved to be the "catalyst" for the end of the high-profile collaboration, ESPN president John Skipper told his network ombudsman. 

According to ombudsman Robert Lipsyte's report, the sports network exec relayed that he "hadn’t seen the trailer or approved its content, which included the ESPN logo and a collaboration credit. He thought it was 'odd for me not to get a heads-up,' and said it made him 'quite unhappy' to discover that ESPN had no editorial control over the trailer. Upon screening it, Skipper said he found the trailer to be 'sensational.'"

TCA FLASHBACK: When ESPN and Frontline Touted Concussion Doc (Transcript) 

The partnership publicly ended on Aug. 22 when Frontline posted a note from its producers saying that ESPN logos would no longer adorn the site or video content for League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis, which is set to air in two parts on Oct. 8 and 15. According to a New York Times report published Aug. 23, ESPN was pressured by the NFL to disassociate itself from the project.

The PBS Frontline trailer that Skipper objected to (watch below), includes a voice-over narration that touts "the inside story of a discovery that could change the game forever" and includes a line that "you can't go up against the NFL, they'll squash you."

The ESPN ombudsman's report also confirms that Skipper and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell met on Aug. 14 in New York. The Times reported that the meeting, which also included NFL Network president Steve Bornstein and ESPN's executive vp production John Wildhack, was "combative." Skipper told Lipsyte that he also discussed the partnership with Disney chairman and CEO Robert Iger.

ESPN has maintained in statements that it was not pressured by the NFL and that dropping the Frontline collaboration -- spearheaded by ESPN's investigative reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru -- was a matter of branding. 

Q&A: ESPN's John Skipper on Sports Rights, Layoffs and Keith Olbermann

Skipper reiterated in a statement last Friday that the network will continue to use its resources to investigate concussions in the NFL. The network president has consistently pointed to the divide between its programming and journalism divisions. 

"We have a programming group, whose job it is to acquire rights, to work with the leagues, to be their partners in presenting their games on our air -- and then we have the news and information group, whose job it is to do enterprise journalism," the exec told THR in June. "And the programming guys cannot interfere with the journalism."

At the time, Skipper also discussed his daily balancing act of meeting with league commissioners. 

"I don't think there is any commissioner who hasn't said something to me," he said. "These guys are smart and they get it. It still doesn't mean it’s any fun. And they consider it their job, which is accurate, to build their businesses and protect the brand of the league. So yeah, they call me, I try to be fair."

While the investigative reporters on the project, Fainaru and Fainaru-Wada, have expressed their disappointment about the collaboration ending, both maintain that their journalism is intact. "While it’s unfortunate that now the partnership appears to be over, everything we’ve heard from ESPN, from our bosses, is that this isn’t about the journalism," Fainaru-Wada told THR

E-mail: Erik.Hayden@THR.com
Twitter: @Erik_Hayden