Friday, February 25, 2011

Labor, the NFL lockout and American network TV

By Evan Weiner

February 25, 2011

(New York, N. Y.) -- American television networks such as CBS, NBC, ABC and FOX have been called to task by union officials for not including labor leaders in their banal and hackneyed Sunday morning "public affairs" programming. The Sunday morning network shows feature the same old politicians, the same old guests hosted by Washington insiders who cover no new ground.

The shows are a waste of time except they give local TV affiliates public service brownie points when it comes to license renewals.

But there is more to the story of shutting out union officials. NBC's Meet the Press has booked AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka for Sunday's show which will include media darling Senator John McCain of Arizona and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who presumably will be asked about taking a phone call from David Koch.

The more to the story angle could prove to be quite embarrassing to NBC's co-owners Comcast and the other networks if Trumka asks why are the networks providing money to National Football League owners for transmission fees if the owners go ahead next week and lock out the employees, the players, in a labor dispute.

The networks have taken sides in the National Football League labor dispute and that should be troubling for everyone. Rupert Murdoch's News Corp (FOX), Comcast-GE's NBC, the Walt Disney Company's ESPN (ABC is a division of the company) and Sumner Redstone's CBS along with DirecTV will pay the NFL owners a full rights fee, worth billions of dollars to the owners, whether there are games played or missed because of the owners decision to lockout players.

Allegedly, the NFL owners will reimburse the networks if games are not shown. However that might be just nomenclature. Somehow, the NFL owners will get their money, maybe on the next TV contract renewal. NFL games get eyeballs in front of the TV or whatever platform is showing a game. It is consistent TV programming which draws eyeballs and advertisers and those advertisers are willing to pay top dollar to reach those eyeballs.

Four of the NFL's five TV partners produce public affairs programming and if Trumka wants to get to the heart of how TV practices journalism, he should ask if the network news shows can indeed show impartiality knowing that the corporate bosses have given the go ahead to their NFL partners to trigger a lockout and support that lockout with TV rights fees.

It would be a very sticky question for NBC's Meet the Press moderator David Gregory to handle. It could also cause problems for FOX's Chris Wallace who recently boasted on a radio talk show that he knows "how to satisfy a woman" and told the "lonely" radio host to look up "advertisements for, like, gentlemen's clubs and escort services."

Neither Gregory nor Wallace nor any of the hosts seem to be equipped to have an answer if Trumka decided to go into that line of questioning. Instead there will be a vacuous round table discussion about nothing which is normal for the TV news talk show.

Trumka's question should be why are the networks underwriting the lockout and if there is a conflict of interest supporting business owners in labor disputes that are collectively bargained with employees. Trumka could then turn to Governor Walker and pose this question to him face to face.

"Why are you so against collective bargaining?"

Trumka could turn the mundane news talk genre into something compelling and in turn force the networks to explain their NFL TV lockout policies publicly.

The networks TV lockout policy is an important issue for consumers, particularly those basic-expanded cable TV subscribers who never watch the NFL on ESPN. They are paying for a product they never watch because of an American cable TV law that allows multiple system operators to bundle cable TV channels onto a tier and sell the channels as one entity which would normally be a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. ESPN and other cable TV networks get most of their monies from subscribers although a small percentage of their revenues come from advertisers. Those subscribers who were forced to take ESPN on the basic tier will help underwrite the NFL lockout. The networks are using public airwaves to support a labor action and that begs the question.

Are the networks affiliates engaged in the proper use of their TV licenses? Affiliated stations are paying their network partners a fee for the right to have NFL games on their stations. The stations are supporting the NFL owners actions.

The owners are collecting money from the public to support the lockout through a third party, whether it is Murdoch's FOX syndication, Comcast-GE's NBC, Redstone's CBS or Disney's ESPN.

Don't look for this type of breakdown from CNN. Time Warner, CNN's parent company, has some conflicts as well. Time Warner will be supplying the National Basketball Association owners with cable TV rights fees (along with ESPN) should the National Basketball Association owners lockout their players in a labor dispute starting on July 1. Time Warner also is starting a Los Angeles regional sports cable TV network featuring the Los Angeles Lakers. The company is in bed with Lakers owner Jerry Buss.

Cable TV subscribers have not been reimbursed for labor actions, whether it was a strike or a lockout, in 1994, 1995, 1998, 1999, 2004 and 2005 in Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League and the National Basketball Association. Apparently nobody has really noticed that owners kept monies from ESPN, TNT and regional sports cable TV networks during the work stoppages.

The National Football League Players Association lawyers are well aware of the cable TV issue. The Players Association was in Judge David Doty's courtroom in Minneapolis on Thursday asking Judge Doty to place what is about $4 billion in revenues from various broadcast platforms in escrow so that the owners cannot use the money to fund a lockout. It was Judge Doty's courtroom that the last labor fight was settled in 1993.

The players lost a bid to place the $4 billion or so in escrow earlier this year when Special Master Stephen Burbank ruled in favor of the owners.

Trumka should put Gregory and the Meet the Press regular Washington D. C. insiders on the defensive and force them to explain the network's football policy. Chances are the Meet the Press regulars will punt and give up the ball.

The Sunday morning shows rarely make any news and are a waste. They are predictable and boring.

Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy's 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on "The Politics of Sports Business." His book, "The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition is available at, Barnes and Noble 's, kobo's literati or amazonkindle. He can be reached at

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