COMMENTS: Shrinking Sports Beat

There is a subtle, but significant shift, in the networks' news agenda as they make the transition from pure television broadcasters to multi-platform providers of video news. The shift is dictated not by journalistic judgment but by the demands of the media. It presages a future of diminishing coverage of a pair of favorite feature beats.

That shift is most recently exemplified by the coverage of today's pair stories: a House committee held hearings into the shortfall of disability coverage for former NFL athletes; and Georgia police investigated the death of WWE pro wrestler Chris Benoit, his wife and seven-year-old son in an apparent murder-suicide. CBS assigned a reporter to both stories and ABC had a reporter cover the former. But none of the three packages--each copiously illustrated by sports action footage--was posted online.

The explanation for their presence on television but their absence as video has nothing to do with journalism, and everything to do with copyright. The rights to use sports footage do not transfer from one medium to another so the footage at a correspondent's disposal to cover a sports story varies medium by medium. The same is true for journalism about show business.

Consider these examples: since the start of May, there have been 18 news stories that aired on ABC World News that have not been posted online; fully half of those (six sports stories, three show business stories) have been on subjects where video rights are difficult to clear. On CBS the same holds true: of the 13 CBS Evening News stories that have not been posted online, four were sports and three were show business.

In the absence of a dispensation on the use of copyrighted video footage, we can predict that video journalism of these two beats will decline as television news evolves into a multi-platform medium. NBC, the network with the least divergence between what it shows on television and what it makes available online, may be setting a trend. In the two month period since the beginning of May it has withheld only one show business story and zero sports stories from its online viewers--but it has covered both beats less heavily than its two rivals. NBC has broadcast five sports stories (ABC 10, CBS 10) and ten show business stories (ABC 18, CBS 13).

The major sports leagues and movie studios should relax their ban on online use of their footage in legitimate news stories. Otherwise two interesting--although admittedly inessential--areas of coverage will get squeezed out of the mainstream video news agenda.

UPDATE: Steve Safran (text link) at Lost Remote argues that the networks probably have the right to post their stories online under the fair use doctrine but fail to exercise that right to avoid the legal hassle of a cease and desist back and forth. That argument sounds plausible. All video journalists should be encouraged to enjoy an expansive and muscular reading of the fair use doctrine--with the networks leading the way, since they have deep enough pockets to pay their lawyers. What I am not clear about is whether the fair use doctrine applies worldwide or only in the United States. Does anyone know the legal consequences of a videostream containing uncleared content being seen outside the United States in a country that does not observe fair use?

FURTHER UPDATE: Brian Montopoli (text link) is sanguine at CBS' Public Eye blog. He sees the current confusion over copyright clearances as an interim legalistic purgatory. In time, he argues, sports leagues will ease restrictions on use of video in order to obtain online exposure and news networks will be eager to craft cross-platform agreements because of the popularity of sports and showbiz news.

Montopoli may be right. Nevertheless, here at Tyndall Report we prefer arguments based on free speech than ones based on copyright clearances. We would rather align ourselves with Safran's advocacy of fair use than with Montopoli's attachment to intellectual property.


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