NFL Films on 'SportsCenter' raise questions of objectivity

Media Watch

January 17, 1996|By MILTON KENT

A seemingly innocuous four-minute piece on the reformation of former Dallas linebacker Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson airing on Monday's 6:30 p.m. and overnight "SportsCenters" may have dangerous repercussions.

It was a thought-provoking story on how the gifted defender on the Cowboys teams of the 1970s has bounced back from a

cocaine addiction, but more interesting is where the piece came from.

The story was reported and produced by NFL Films, a biased source, and raises questions about how closely intertwined the leagues and the networks should be.

In many ways, the line between the networks and the leagues they cover has been blurred, if not directly crossed.

Diane Lamb, an ESPN spokeswoman, said the network uses NFL Films pieces each week on its "NFL Prime Monday" show, and NBC, Fox and TNT also use highlights from the New Jersey-based company.

A fascinating documentary, "Six Days to Sunday," a look at the preparation of the Cowboys and the Vikings before a game, was produced by NFL Films for TNT, which next week will air a Super Bowl show that also was produced by the company.

Other entities are getting into the act. NBC's "NBA Inside Stuff," which airs each Saturday on the network, is produced by NBA Entertainment.

But the Henderson story seems a bit more egregious in that it aired on "SportsCenter," the sports equivalent of the evening news. The piece's airing on "SportsCenter" is analogous to this newspaper allowing a member of the Orioles' public relations staff, for instance, to write a story on a player in its news columns, something that never would happen.

To their credit, both Bob Ley and Steve Levy, the respective "SportsCenter" anchors, told the viewers where the story came from right at the top. But the network should think long and hard before allowing a source like NFL Films, NBA Entertainment or the baseball or hockey equivalents to have that kind of run on such a cherished news outlet like "SportsCenter."

Adding to the competition

Ever since ESPN proved that a channel, and now two channels, could deliver a steady 24-hour diet of just sports, a line of interested comers has formed, usually to be scared off by the logistics of the challenge and the formidability of the champion of the format.

However, if there's truth to reports that first surfaced in this week's Advertising Age that Ted Turner is serious about starting a 24-hour sports channel, ESPN could be staring at its most serious competitor to date.

Turner spokesman Greg Hughes said yesterday, "We don't comment on speculation," but sources inside and out of the company said the wheels are turning for such a channel.

A Turner source would not pin down a start date for such a channel, but noted that a financial channel went from the talking * *TC stage to debut within about a year.

Unlike ESPN and ESPN2, the new sports channel would not carry live sporting events, but would provide news and related programming in much the same fashion that Turner entity CNN does, from the studio and from the site of events.

The sports channel would not have many of the high overhead costs that many new cable ventures carry because the supporting infrastructure -- namely reporters, studios, technology and the like -- is in place through the auspices of such Turner channels as CNN, TBS and TNT.

The Turner empire is scheduled to be acquired by Time Warner, whose broadcast and publishing holdings, including Sports Illustrated, could provide even more support for such a venture.

Turner must obtain approval from his board to make this move. That may not be simple because TCI, one of the largest TBS shareholders, recently formed a partnership with Fox for a worldwide sports channel.

But if it happens, the playing field for sports news-gathering will change significantly.

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