NFL Removes Local TV Affiliates From Game Sidelines

By Donald R. Winslow

The National Football League’s 32 team owners attending their Spring meeting this week in Orlando, FL, voted Tuesday to adopt a new policy that removes local television affiliates from the sidelines of all NFL games. Television photojournalists from local stations in the NFL teams’ area will no longer be allowed to shoot from the sidelines during the game, preventing them from capturing game action images to show on news and highlight shows.

But many of the rumors affiliate TV news directors and sports producers are hearing about being completely shut out of NFL coverage appears to be not true.

NFL owners voted unanimously Tuesday to pass the NFL’s Broadcast Cooperation Resolution, which bans affiliate television photojournalists from shooting from the sidelines during game play. NFL spokesperson Steve Alic told News Photographer magazine today, “The impetus for this was the unauthorized use of game footage that the NFL has seen most recently posted on a television station’s Web site. Use of game footage on Web sites is unauthorized. It’s been a big problem, especially recently. So the resolution’s goal is to curtail unauthorized use of game footage,” Alic said.

"Local reporting of national sporting events relies on photographers shooting in a style that represents local expectations," NPPA president Alicia Wagner Calzada said today. "By denying local television stations acess to the sidelines they are in essence denying the viewers in the area the type of sports coverage to which they have become acustomed. The bottom line is, it's not the photographers who suffer from this decision but the local viewer, a move that could ultimately backfire by alienating the very people the sports franchise depends on for financial support: the sports fan."

NPPA past president Todd Stricker, a sports photojournalist in San Antonio, TX, reacted to the NFL owners’ vote by saying, “There are already all kinds of limitations to the credential agreements that we sign allowing us to shoot from the sidelines. If the NFL wants to limit game action footage from being used on Web sites, then just make that part of the credential agreement and enforce it legally."

A story in The Detroit News by reporter Mike O’Hara quotes the chief operating officer of the Detroit Lions as saying that the team owners voted to adopt the policy because the league wants to “protect its property rights and remove some of the congestion on the sidelines.”

Rumors floating between stations and journalists today included information that the ban would also prevent pre-game and post-game live shots from inside NFL stadiums. Alic says that’s not the case.

“Photography by local affiliates pre-game on the field, and post-game on the field, will be allowed. Also post-game locker room shots, and players and coaches walking onto and off of the field is allowed. Players giving pre-game and post-game interviews, original content for local stations, is allowed. The difference now is that local affiliates will not be allowed to shoot game action.”

Alic says local affiliates will be able to get their game action images from a network feed or from NFL Films, “which is no different from the years past.”

“Local affiliates will still be able to deliver game highlights and original content – interviews and locker rooms – to the fans at home,” Alic said. “That’s not going to change.” The change is in the fact that an affiliate's report will now have to rely on network feeds or NFL images for the game action portion of that report.

A check of some television stations in cities with NFL teams verifies that most affiliate TV sports departments have heard about the owners’ vote to remove them from the sidelines, but no one has received official word of it yet from the NFL.

The owners’ vote will have a significant impact most affiliate stations that – at the very least – cover their NFL team’s home games. Many affiliate stations, such as WISH-TV in Indianapolis, IN, who cover the Colts, travel on all of the Colt’s away games as well. Today finds the news directors and sports producers of most affiliate stations seeking some kind of clarification or verification from both the NFL and their local NFL team’s media relations people, but very little information has been forthcoming.

John Gross at KSTP-TV in St. Paul, MN, said today that he’s been told by their sports producer that there will be “no shooting of NFL games, from the ground or from up above, and no live shots before or after the game from inside the stadium.” KSTP-TV has the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings in their home market. Gross, who has done more than 300 network sports reports in his career, said he’d also been told that TV photojournalists won’t be able to shoot at the 50-yard line.

A sports producer at KSTP-TV called the Vikings media relations office today seeking information, he said, and was told that the owners passed the affiliate sideline ban unanimously – but it still hasn’t been announced or confirmed in writing to the broadcasters. He also made a call to the affiliate station in Green Bay, where the NFL’s Packers reside, and they’ve heard the same thing: no live shots inside the stadium before or after the game, and no shooting from above.

“You already can’t shoot the NHL or NCAA basketball Final Four, or the women’s Final Four, or NCAA hockey Final Four … It doesn’t surprise me,” Gross said. In those instances, local affiliates have to rely on a network feed (sometimes limited) for any scenes of game action.

“The NFL has tried to do this for years, to block out local affiliation of the games,” veteran television photojournalist Dave Wertheimer said today from Atlanta. “We already have restrictions on shooting practice and in other areas. This eliminates the opportunity to ‘isolate’ a particular player, coach, or anything else we want to personalize. To only be able to use the switched network feed homogenizes covering these events for our viewers. This lets the team owners further control the message and coverage. The fans’ right to know will be strictly compromised, if not eliminated. I would like to see a local news boycott of NFL football, but I doubt it will happen.” Wertheimer is news manager of technical operations for WGCL-TV CBS46 News in Atlanta, GA.

Bea Chang has been a sports photographer at KARE 11 in Minneapolis-St. Paul for 10 years, shooting every football game of the last 11 seasons. "Personally, I understand why the NFL is choosing to take us all off the sidelines. It gives them more control over the footage that comes out of a football game and it will be much easier for the live broadcast photographers to do their job without all of us down there," Chang said. "But I feel like this decision came out of nowhere. I mean, was there a problem to begin with? I feel like the NFL does not want us to cover them anymore and they ultimately want control over everything that is broadcast about them. I think it is kind of strange, but they are a private business in the world of entertainment and they can do whatever they want. The NCAA does it and so does the Olympics. I'm fairly certain it is just a matter of time until all professional teams are doing this."

Chang asked, "Why is it that only the television photographers are being pulled? How about all those still photographers who make their living selling pictures to card companies who are at every single game crowding the sidelines? Why do the still photographers still get to shoot and not us?"

"I am sad that I won't be able to shoot professional football highlights anymore, but it's not the end of the world. There will be a lot of sports photographers who specialize in shooting football (like me) who will eventually not have a niche anymore. It's a sad day, but one that I know has been in the works for a long time," she concluded.

“I’m disappointed in the decision on the sideline policy,” sports photojournalist Roger Masterton of CBS4-TV in Denver told News Photographer today. “I can understand the league wanting to protect its property rights, however I think – especially in our market – that the product that we produce helps to give local fans a better feel and understanding for the team. On game days, we just don’t produce packages that contain game highlights, we breakdown the game to give the viewer more insight. If, for example, the defense or a player is having a standout game I can focus on shooting that aspect. There are always other things that are going on during a game that sometimes the network broadcast will not get.”

“In the end it’s the leagues decision, it means that we will just to have to be more creative in the way that we cover our NFL teams. Our viewers have come to expect high-quality coverage of our team, and we will try to continue to give them that quality in the future.”

Reporting on this story is ongoing.