It took about three hours for presenters to hand out 43 Peabody Awards at the 73rd annual ceremony Monday at the Waldorf-Astoria. And as usual, the ceremony overflowed with inspiring passages and acceptance speeches aiming for uplift.
But one speech stood out by recalling one of the most peculiar -- and public -- breakups in the TV business in recent years, the unwinding of a partnership between ESPN and PBS over the documentary League of Denial about concussions in the NFL.
The networks were each awarded Peabodys for taking on the concussion debate. ESPN did so via its decorated show Outside the Lines and PBS through investigative flagship Frontline. (The OTL piece was more focused on a doctor's questionable concussion advice to the NFL.)
Last summer, the networks' unusual collaboration fell apart after promotional material surfaced in mid-2013 and PBS held a session about the film toward the end of TCA’s summer press tour that caught ESPN execs off guard. The program’s tough stance against the NFL proved too much for ESPN, a longtime rights holder and partner with the league, so it pulled out of the teaming after 15 months. The dissolution of the co-venture was a slow-motion crash that prompted widespread media-biz rubbernecking, with revelations dribbling out gradually about how ESPN got into the project in the first place and then opted to exit.
The back story was recapped for the audience in brief by event host Ira Glass as the nets claimed their trophies one after the other. ESPN's Dwayne Bray kept his remarks simple and praised colleagues, including vets John Walsh and Vince Doria, who "decided not to let sports be the toy department." League producer Michael Kirk chose to address the elephant in the room.
"ESPN abandoned us," he said, adding, "We are comrades in arms with you guys regardless of what happened."
Kirk said the NFL proved a mightier force of opposition than even recent Frontline targets like the National Security Agency. "PBS stood by us," even as ESPN pulled out and the league maintained a wall of silence, Kirk said. "No other network would have done that."
For media watchers, Pivot's June 1 broadcast of an edited, one-hour version of the Peabody show will be worth monitoring to see if any of the inside football makes the final cut.