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

"We were presented with this opportunity to literally get in bed with Frontline," the sports network's senior coordinating producer told   journalists assembled in Beverly Hills three weeks ago."The NFL is going to have to understand that."
Getty Images
Senior coordinating producer at ESPN Dwayne Bray and "League of Denial" director Michael Kirk speaking at the Aug. 6 panel at TCA.

When ESPN abruptly ended its partnership with PBS' Frontline on an investigative reporting project on concussions, the sports network's spokesman told THR it didn't pay as much attention to how the joint effort was being promoted. "We should've paid attention to the marketing and the branding much sooner," said Chris LaPlaca, ESPN's senior vp corporate communications.

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

Three weeks ago, however, the network had publicly touted the partnership. At a Television Critics Association panel held Aug. 6 in Beverly Hills, ESPN's senior coordinating producer Dwayne Bray described the collaboration as a "conscious decision" to "literally get in bed with Frontline." He explained that the NFL "is going to have to understand that."

Below is an excerpt of Bray's response to a question from the transcript of the TCA panel, which was comprised of the sports coordinator along with League of Denial director Michael Kirk, Frontline deputy executive producer Raney Aronson-Rath, ESPN investigative reporters Scott Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada and former NFL player Harry Carson


Question: Yes. Question for Dwayne. The documentary says or somebody quoted in the documentary says you can't go up against the NFL or you get squashed. How is ESPN going to go up against the NFL when they are a major rights holder and they basically have profited immensely from the culture of violence that is in the NFL?

ESPN's Dwayne Bray: Well, we don't see this as ESPN going up against the NFL. People can ‑‑ in their soundbites, they are allowed their opinion. We just see this as reporting the story. Again, we've been reporting the story for a very long time, and we're going to continue to report the story. I think one of the interesting things about ESPN is it's sort of a bifurcated company. You do have the business partners on one side, but you also have the editorial production side. And our journalism has been very strong on this issue and so strong that we partner with Frontline. Frontline is about as ‑‑ it's the gold standard, I've said before, of long form investigative documentaries. ESPN is the gold standard for sports journalism from covering the games to investigative journalism. Nobody does it as comprehensively as we do it. So we made a conscious decision when we were presented with this opportunity to literally get in bed with Frontline. 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.

Question: Mr. Bray, to follow on that, the journalism is strong. But in between the journalism, any child watching ESPN or CBS or NBC or Fox or their local news after the football games are played are going to see footage after footage of hard hits with the commentators, except on very rare occasions, saying "Isn't that tremendous? Isn't that great?" And playing them again and again, you know, players flipping over, falling on their heads. What can be done about that side of --

Dwayne Bray: I think that may have been true six, eight years ago. I think we've been very restrained on this issue. I mean, it is our job to report the news. So if there are hard hits, we report the news. But at the same time, I think even as the NFL and as the parents, we've talked about it, in America are being educated, ESPN and other media entities are being educated as well. So I think we've shown a lot of restraint, especially in recent years, in terms of showing the big hits. We have a lot of discussions and we don't do we don't show any of that footage willy nilly. There's a lot of thought and discussion that goes into our highlights.