ESPN Ends Frontline Concussion Collaboration; Investigative Reporter 'Disappointed'

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(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.

"We really believed strongly in the partnership," said Steve Fainaru, whose book, "League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis," forms the basis for the accompanying documentary.

After more than a year as partners, ESPN has ended its high-profile collaboration with PBS' Frontline less than two months before the television debut of League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis. The sports network attributed the decision as a matter of having "editorial control" over the documentary content.  

Steve Fainaru, the ESPN investigative reporter who spearheads the project, only recently learned of the change. "We found out something was going on at the beginning of the week," he told The Hollywood Reporter by phone on Thursday. "We were disappointed. We really believed strongly in the partnership."  

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

Much of the reporting for the project was drawn from the forthcoming book by Fainaru and his brother, Mark Fainaru-Wada, also an ESPN investigative reporter. "No one is questioning the journalism," said Fainaru. "We’ve been assured by ESPN that the commitment to the journalism that we’ve been doing, including the journalism that we’ve been doing with Frontline, is completely intact and they support it." 

Earlier in the day, a joint statement by Frontline executive producer David Fanning and deputy executive producer, Raney Aronson, said that the ESPN logo will no longer adorn installments in their investigation on concussions. "From now on, at ESPN’s request, we will no longer use their logos and collaboration credit" on the League of Denial website. "The film is still being edited and has not been seen by ESPN news executives, although we were on schedule to share it with them for their editorial input," the statement read.

Frontline is still planning on airing the two-part doc on October 8 and 15.

ESPN explained the decision as being due to not having editorial control over the documentary and becoming aware of this as the television premiere approached. "We should've paid attention to the marketing and the branding much sooner," said Chris LaPlaca, ESPN's senior vp corporate communications to THR. "That was a mistake on our part. We simply had not earlier focused on the implications of the marketing and promotion strategy around the documentaries."

ESPN's statement on ending the co-branding with Frontline reminds that the network will continue to cover concussions in its own reports. "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," the statement read. "The use of ESPN's marks could incorrectly imply that we have editorial control. As we have in the past, we will continue to cover the concussion story through our own reporting."

The sports network, however, had touted the project on multiple occasions and also partnered with Frontline to create the concussion tracker, Concussion Watch. In August, ESPN investigative reporters Fainaru and Fainaru-Wada, along with ESPN's sports news editor Dwayne Bray, talked about the project on a TCA panel that included former NFL player Harry Carson and League of Denial director Michael Kirk.

ESPN, which has a $15.2 billion dollar deal with the NFL, is regularly scrutinized for its balancing act as both a broadcaster and journalism outlet. ESPN president John Skipper has reiterated that the two groups operate separately. 

"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," Skipper told THR in June. "And the programming guys cannot interfere with the journalism. The single thing that irritates me most is the assumption that we have some sort of unmanageable conflict."

Twitter: @Erik_Hayden