Indianapolis TV stations say a new National Football League policy that bans them from the sidelines during games is a violation of their First Amendment rights and threatens a major source of income.
A league-wide rule that was passed 32-0 by team owners March 28 allows only the licensed broadcast rights-holder to shoot sideline footage during games.
The National Association of Broadcasters, Radio-Television News Directors Association and Society of Professional Journalists have petitioned to have the rule overturned. Though owners are scheduled to revisit the issue this month, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said changes are unlikely.
Pete Ward, Colts senior executive vice president, said the new rule is meant to protect networks that pay to broadcast games.
"The impetus is to protect our most valuable rights, which is the game footage," Ward said. CBS, Fox, NBC and ESPN hold most of the rights.
"We were really taken by surprise by this; it came out of nowhere," said Jeff White, WISH-TV Channel 8 general manager. "This impedes our ability to cover the hometown Colts."
Officials for the National Association of Broadcasters and the Radio-Television News Directors Association, which has sent letters to all 32 NFL team owners and league Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, said they haven't ruled out legal action to get the rule overturned.
"This undermines the tenants of a free press," said Linda Compton, Indiana Broadcasters Association president and CEO. "How can you ban coverage of a news event in a publicly funded facility?"
Many NFL teams, including the Colts, play in venues that were paid for in part by local and state tax dollars.
The NFL's ruling strikes at the very heart of one of local broadcasters' primary revenue streams. Local TV news accounts for 40 percent to 70 percent of a station's revenue, media buyers said, and sports and weather coverage drive the ratings.
"News coverage is extremely important for the financial health of a station, and within that, weather and sports is the way many stations put their stamp on their news product," said Robert Papper, Ball State University telecommunications professor. "Sports coverage, especially, drives viewer loyalty."
Previously, local stations could send videographers onto the field to capture unique low-angle views and to tape reporter segments with the game as the backdrop. But NFL spokesman Aiello said some stations were breaking their agreement by showing the footage on their Web sites. Aiello said congestion on the sidelines also was a concern.
Local station officials said their homespun footage is critical not only for news coverage, but also for special shows featuring the Colts during the season and playoffs.
Local videographers will still be allowed on the field up to 20 minutes before kickoff and after the game to conduct interviews. Local TV stations will also be allowed to conduct locker-room interviews.
In addition, Aiello said, local stations can air feeds provided by the national broadcast rights-holder, and can request low-angle shots or shots of particular players for special features from NFL crews. Some owners want to sell certain footage to local stations through league subsidiaries, NFL Films or the newly created NFL Network.
"If everyone is getting the same feeds, how is a station supposed to differentiate itself?" asked Don Lundy, WRTV-TV Channel 6 general manager.
"Local reporting of national sporting events relies on photographers shooting in a style that represents local expectations," said Alicia Calzada, president of North Carolina-based National Press Photographers Association, which also represents videographers. "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."
Local broadcasters said the NFL owners' move is a power grab to control content.
Aiello stressed that league officials have little control over what the national broadcaster licensed to carry the game shoots.
But White said there are documented instances of local TV crews catching controversial events-such as players and coaches feuding on the sidelines-that the national licensed broadcaster has missed.
"We're asking the Colts to take another look at this and seriously consider their position," Compton said. "In the long term, we feel, not only is it bad for fans and local broadcasters, but the Colts themselves in terms of marketing, ticket sales and other revenue generation."
"When electronic journalists are denied the ability to report on a news event with their own microphones, cameras and production crews, it allows newsmakers to determine the content of the news, a result that is inconsistent with our society's democratic values," RTNDA President Barbara Cochran wrote to NFL officials.
Editor's note: Greg Andrews is on assignment this week. His Behind the News column will return April 24. Local TV crews count on game-time footage for news and special features.