In the 2011-12 NBA lockout, management has one often under-reported advantage over labor.
There are only six corporations controlling most of the media Americans consume, and the NBA has lucrative rights deals with four. Disney (ESPN, ABC) and Time Warner (Turner Broadcasting) have multibillion dollar national television deals with the NBA, while News Corporation (Fox Sports Net) and Comcast (Comcast SportsNet) hold local television rights to several of the league’s teams.
Right off the bat, those television deals call into question the type of NBA lockout coverage viewers can expect from ESPN, TNT, FSN or CSN, to say nothing of ABC News, CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC.
Disney and Time Warner, in particular, are providing the NBA with much needed funds during the lockout. Despite the cancellation of at least the first six weeks of the season, the corporate giants are still paying the NBA a combined $930 million in rights fees. Only if the entire season is canceled — a very distinct possibility — does the league have to pay that money back.
Through Turner Sports, Time Warner also manages the NBA’s digital properties, including NBA TV and the league’s official website NBA.com.
CBS Corporation (CBS) and Viacom (MTV, Comedy Central, Spike TV) are separate entities after their 2006 split, and neither has a current relationship with the NBA. CBS, which rarely bids for sports TV rights beyond the events which it already televises, seems unlikely to go after NBA rights when the league’s current television deals expire.
With that in mind, could CBS’ 60 Minutes or Viacom’s The Colbert Report be among the few truly independent outlets for NBA lockout coverage?
Probably not. Even in the absence of a relationship with the NBA, these corporations are massive businesses in their own right. Without casting any judgment, it is in the best interest of any media corporation to skew toward management in coverage of labor-management disputes.
In addition, the major media corporations are a lot like the NBA’s thirty franchises. They share the same interests and goals, both implicitly and directly through interlocking directorates and joint ventures. CBS, for instance, has a relationship with Time Warner through their joint-ownership of The CW. That isn’t to say that their shared interest in the success of Gossip Girl has led to CBS honchos standing over Ken Berger‘s shoulder, but it is something to keep in mind.
Does this mean that these corporate giants are going to rail mercilessly against the NBA’s players? Of course not. It is in the best interests of any media corporation to appear objective, and in the best interest of the NBA to seem open to opposing arguments.
NBA management can only benefit from the idea that the labor-management dispute is a two-sided fight. Sure, the owners are getting criticized from all corners, and even the league’s official website has seasoned, objective journalists placing blame on both sides. But in a conflict that is almost entirely your own creation, the ‘pox on both their houses,’ ‘millionaires vs. billionaires’ approach is almost always to your benefit. Especially when you are generally anonymous and will soon be forgotten, as these owners will assuredly be once the sides finally agree to a new deal.
The players will bear the scars of this lockout for many years, and it will be on their heads that the hammer of public scorn will fall. The owners, on the other hand, will recede back into general anonymity.
Certainly, this is not to impugn the reporting of the likes of David Aldridge or Ric Bucher. It is important to note, however, that several of the media outlets covering this lockout are not wholly objective observers. They are, in fact, David Stern‘s business partners.
(Information on NBA rights fees obtained from the Sporting News)