NFL Films and Network: A marriage gone bad

headquarters in Mount Laurel.YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
headquarters in Mount Laurel.YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER (NFL Films)
Posted: July 29, 2011

NFL FILMS president Steve Sabol is, by nature, an optimist. A glass-half-full, everything's-going-to-be-all-right guy.

So, it hardly was surprising that when the National Football League started its own television network 8 years ago and brought in a former ESPN/ABC Sports suit - Steve Bornstein - to run it, and another former ESPN/ABC Sports suit - Howard Katz - to be chief operating officer of NFL Films, Sabol thought it would be a great thing for his company.

"We're going to be the foundation of the whole network," he told the Daily News in June 2003, 5 months before the NFL Network made its on-air debut. "I don't think there would be a network if not for NFL Films.

"If NFL Films is the Starship Enterprise, Steve and Howard are the booster rockets that are going to take us where no man has gone before."

On the surface, it seemed to make sense. You had a brand new 24/7 network that was going to need a lot of programming, and you had a respected film company with a truckload of sports Emmys that could service all of its programming needs. A marriage made in heaven, right?

Wrong.

Considering what has transpired over the last 8 years, a more apt analogy might be Films as the Titanic and Bornstein, Katz and the NFL Network as the iceberg that sank it.

In the mid-60s, pro football wasn't America's game and the NFL wasn't the $9.3 billion revenue machine it is today. It was running a distant third in popularity to baseball and college football. NFL Films helped change that.

With its unique style of filmmaking and story-telling, which featured things such as super slo-motion and orchestra music and dramatic narration, Films gave the NFL a mystique, a mythology, that mesmerized sports fans and helped pro football soar past baseball and become America's game.

Films' impact on the league, both in terms of popularity and profitability, is unquestioned. It's why, next week, Steve's father Ed, the former overcoat salesman-turned-filmmaker who started the company in Center City, will be getting his very own bronze bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, when he becomes just the 19th "contributor" to be inducted.

Yet, even as the league prepares to pay tribute to Sabol, the company he created finds itself battling for survival against people who seem to think it has outlived its usefulness.

Its budget has been slashed, its workforce has been gutted by two rounds of layoffs and buyouts, and it essentially has been reduced to an assembly line for cheap, quick-turnaround content for the NFL Network, which, 8 years into Bornstein's tenure, remains barely watchable.

Most of the signature programming that made Films so distinctive has been eliminated by Bornstein/Katz because it was determined to be either too costly or too yesterday or both.

"The thing that has always set NFL Films apart, the thing that has been its trademark, is the slow spiral in the air," said Comcast SportsNet's Ray Didinger, an Emmy-winning producer and writer at Films for 9 years before leaving in 2008. "One shot lasting 45 seconds. The ball leaving the quarterback's hands and being caught. That was the kind of stuff that made NFL Films great and helped make the league so popular. That was their signature.

"But you've got these guys [at NFL Network] now with ADD, they're watching that ball spinning and they're saying, 'OK, let's catch it already. Go, go, go. Catch the ball, will ya.'

"We would sit down in meetings with them occasionally when I was there and we'd be discussing programming for the upcoming season. Every time we would propose an NFL Films-type look at something, you could kind of see them say, 'Well, ya know, we were thinking of something that was a little edgier and a little punchier and a little faster.'

"The term that we used to get kicked back at us from time to time was, 'dinosaur television.' They'd say, 'That stuff is dated. Been done before. People have seen it. We're going to change the way football is presented on television.'

"That really bothered me because the one thing about NFL Films was it was distinctive. [If] you saw an NFL Films show on television, it didn't sound like, look like, feel like anything else on television. If you saw it, you said, 'That's NFL Films.' It had a uniqueness. What's unique about the NFL Network? It looks like what it is. It looks like a knockoff of ESPN."

Didinger is just one of the many talented writers, producers, editors and cameramen who have left Films the last few years, either voluntarily or as the result of layoffs. A workforce that once included more than 300 employees now has been whittled to 215.

Since Steve Sabol was diagnosed with brain cancer in March, morale at Films' Mount Laurel, N.J.-based headquarters, which already wasn't very good, has sunk to an all-time low.

"People are afraid to leave because they don't know what they're going to do, but they're also afraid of what's happening right before their eyes," said former Films vice president Phil Tuckett, who spent 36 years with the company before resigning in 2007.

"They're destroying that company. It's a cold-blooded killing. Bornstein and Katz are just cold-eyed network killers. They don't care about what we represented. With every action spoken and unspoken since they got there, they've said, 'We're in charge now. We don't want to hear this nonsense anymore about the topcoat-maker making home movies of his kid.'

"Their approach is how much cheap crap can you turn out as quickly as possible so we can stick it on this godawful network that we've created.' "

Bornstein declined an interview request by the Daily News for this story. Katz acknowledged that the increasing demand for quick-turnaround content for the NFL Network and other league-related outlets such as nfl.com has reduced the number of long-form, post-production shows Films is making. But he disputed Tuckett's "cheap crap" contention.

"We won five Emmys last year," Katz said. "People can say we're not [producing high-quality shows anymore], but we won five Emmys for the stuff that we do best. We have people doing wonderful stuff here. I'm not sure there's anything that we used to do that we don't do anymore.

"We went through a couple of tough years here. I don't feel great about having to make decisions that involved people losing their jobs. There's nothing worse than that. But I think we came through it, and having gone through it, we're a better company for it."

In truth, there's a great deal that Films used to do that it doesn't do anymore. Since the arrival of Bornstein and Katz, several quality shows, including critically acclaimed "Game of the Week" and "Lost Treasures," were deep-sixed. "Game of the Week" was replaced by "NFL Replay," which is nothing more than the network broadcast of a game whittled down to fit in a 1-hour window.

" 'Game of the Week' was an old-standard show," Didinger said. "It had been around a long time. It was a fully formed, fully scripted show that told you a story about the game and the people in the game and the strategy in the game.

"It was always a good, solid show. One of the best things we did. But it was a four- or five-producer show with a lot of post-production and was more expensive. It's easier for them to tell one producer to get the network feed of the Chargers-Broncos game and just cut it down to 1 hour."

In 2006, NFL Films produced a series for NFLN called "America's Game: the Super Bowl Champions." It was one of the best projects the company has ever done. It was well received. It won an Emmy for best sports series. But when Steve Sabol pitched the idea of a sequel to Bornstein, it was shot down.

"We didn't get the order for the [America's Game] sequel, but we got the first order for it," Katz said. "As for 'Game of the Week,' I wish we still were producing it for the network. It kills me that we're not. I think it's the best show not on television today.

"I don't want to speak for Steve Bornstein. I can't speak for him. He makes programming decisions for the network that I'm not involved in. Do I think 'Game of the Week' is a better show than 'NFL Replay?' I'd watch 'Game of the Week' every day of the week because I love that approach to it.

"But at a totally different level, people are making programming decisions about what works on that particular network. Some of them are cost-related. Some of them are strictly ratings-related. And some of them are a combination of, OK, we can spend this much money and get this rating, or we can spend this much money and get the same rating. They have a responsibility of trying to figure out within a given programming budget how to spend those dollars."

For much of its existence, Films had enjoyed almost complete autonomy. "It was the secret to success," Ed Sabol said in a recent interview with the Daily News. "They left us completely alone. I took it for granted."

Sabol started his own film company in 1962 at the age of 45 with a 16mm Bell & Howell windup camera that he and his wife had received as a wedding present years earlier. Three years later, he convinced the NFL's owners to chip in $20,000 apiece to buy his company and let him continue to run it.

They left Ed and Steve alone to do what they did best, which was produce high-quality films that promoted pro football. Cost seldom was a factor.

"Our autonomy was protected vigorously through the years," Tuckett said of a company that Sports Illustrated once called the most effective propaganda organ in the history of corporate America. "[Pete] Rozelle believed that the ownership shouldn't be dictating to Films how these things should be done. [Paul] Tagliabue essentially carried on the same philosophy. Leave these guys alone. They're doing the job for us. We'll just screw it up if we go down there and try to change substantially what the model is and has been for all those years."

Since Roger Goodell succeeded Tagliabue as commissioner in 2006, the bottom line has become a much more integral factor in league policy and decision-making. Goodell rose to power in large part because he impressed the owners with his ability to cut costs and save them money.

Under the Sabols, Films never had been a how-much-does-it-cost business. They were about the story and making it as good as it possibly could be. Ed Sabol used to tell his cameramen, "Let the film run like water." That philosophy was why Tuckett still was shooting at the end of the Eagles-Giants "Miracle in the Meadowlands" game in 1978 and got that classic footage of Herm Edwards picking up that fumbled handoff for a game-winning touchdown. It's why another Films cameraman, Ernie Ernst, was there to capture Franco Harris' "Immaculate Reception."

'For so many years, we had a like-minded group of peers and artisans of craft and production and staff people who believed what we were doing was important to the success of the league," Tuckett said.

"Walking down the halls, there was just this energy that was always there," Tuckett said. "No matter how tired we were from what we were doing, it was [about] the next assignment. It was Steve coming up and saying, 'If we do a piece on [former Kansas City Chiefs running back] Christian Okoye, how do you think we should handle the fact that he's from Africa?' And I would say, 'We should go there. Go to the town he's from. That's the only way to do it.' And he'd say, 'OK. We'll work that out.' Next thing you knew we were on a plane to Africa to do the Christian Okoye story.

"It didn't seem odd. It didn't seem rash. It didn't seem arbitrary. Because everybody was on the same wavelength. We had the right people with the right equipment in the right places at the right time over and over and over again. So many times that it just became our reality. Which is why, when that reality changed, it just became a cataclysmic blow to what we'd always known."

Steve Sabol will be the first to admit that he's never been all that interested in the business aspect of his company. He was an art major in college.

"Steve's title is president, but he's really the artist in residence," Films vice president Barry Wolper said.

Said Sabol: "I have no business sense. None. I'm the creative leader."

The NFL never cared whether Films made money. But when Bornstein and Katz arrived, it suddenly started caring how much it was losing. Katz wouldn't say how much that was, but according to another league executive with knowledge of Films' finances, it was somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million a year.

"Eight years ago, there was less attention paid to the business of NFL Films," Katz said. "We're a better company today because we've been forced, partially through the volume and deadlines that were established by the NFL Network, to establish a degree of financial responsibility that I think is necessary in today's environment."

Katz said that when he became Films' COO, nobody at the company even knew the cost to the company of filming a game.

"That was good because nobody cared about anything but the creative product, but it had gotten a little out of control,'' he said. "So now we know how much film we shoot. Now we know what it costs to do certain things. And we make smart decisions."

Not always. The NFL made a really dumb - and costly - decision in 2003 when it started NFL Network. A year earlier, Films had moved into a brand new, 214,000-square foot headquarters in Mount Laurel that cost the league $45 million to build.

There was plenty of room at Films to house the new network - the entire third floor of the building still is unoccupied. But when the league was courting the Los Angeles-based Bornstein, he made it clear that he and his wife weren't interested in relocating. Rather than hire somebody else, the league acquiesced and agreed to put the network in Bornstein's back yard.

"A lot of people felt this would have been an obvious place to put the network," Katz said. "Obviously, we have the real estate here, the infrastructure here [to house NFL Network]. We have access to a lot of teams within driving distance of here. But that decision was made and you go on and live with it.

"I think the reasons [for putting the network in Los Angeles rather than in Films' headquarters] was this feeling that there would be more access to more talent, particularly in the offseason. That tons of players either live in the LA area or spend time there in the offseason. That there was a vision of marrying sports and entertainment and getting celebrity types involved in NFLN studio programming. Clearly, LA is more conducive to that.

"I think there also was a decision at the time that maybe we as a league were maybe closer to getting a team in LA than we actually were at the time. And that ultimately, making the network studio facility a part of a complex that would involve a team out there might be a really smart vision. It didn't turn out that way, but it may have been part of the thought process at the time."

Eight years into its existence, the NFL Network still isn't on all of the nation's cable systems. It finally struck a deal with Comcast 2 years ago, but still hasn't come to terms with the nation's other top cable provider, Time Warner.

Yet, the owners continue to throw money at Bornstein, the league's second-highest paid executive behind only Goodell at $8 million a year, and his network, even as it continues to pinch pennies at Films. Several months ago, they closed the cafeteria in the building.

Katz, though, insists the league isn't trying to put Films out to pasture. He insists the company remains as relevant as ever.

"We produce great content, and there's always going to be a meaningful market for great content," he said. "Whether that's short features on mobile devices or giving people access to our shows on Hulu, this company has an enormous future."

Others, like Tuckett, disagree. What the league has done to Films and the way it has upended the lives of employees who gave decades to a company that made the NFL a $9.3 billion-a-year cash cow still makes him furious 4 years after he walked away.

"They're doing what they wanted to do," Tuckett said. "But they've left a lot of heartache and tragedy in their wake. What they've replaced us with [NFL Network] is so bad that it still grinds in my gut. I'm upset with the callous and cruel way this was done to a company that had given so much and that so many people had worked so hard to build.

"Our track record at the end of the day will be so much more full of pride and credibility than this crap that they've replaced it with."

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