Playing the Game at ABC and the NFL

Two recent unrelated events might just be related after all.

Late last month, the NFL announced that next season teams would be fined whenever a player takes a knee on the field during the national anthem.

Six days later, ABC cancelled the highly rated sit-com reboot “Roseanne.”

In announcing the new NFL policy, Commissioner Roger Goodell said the kneeling ban is part of “the NFL’s ongoing commitment to local communities and the country.”

Meanwhile, in dropping the axe on Roseanne Barr, ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey said that “Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values.”  By now you know what the tweet said.  No need to repeat it here.

We’ll get back to the NFL in a moment, but first a deeper dive into the Roseanne vs. ABC fiasco.  It is not a secret that Roseanne has always had a problem with filters.   There was her memorable off-key singing of the national anthem  at a San Diego Padres game in 1990, where she finished by grabbing her crotch and spitting at the mound—an action that earned a presidential rebuke from then-president George W. Bush.  In the intervening years Barr has used her Twitter account to advance a variety of conspiracy theories.

The point is that ABC knew what they were getting when they brought Roseanne back on the air: a talented comedian who occasionally runs badly off the rails.  With all the risk of having such a loose cannon in the network’s arsenal, why take the chance?

Well, duh, for the money.  To date, ABC has made $45 million in advertising revenue from the show.  But with businesses immediately lining up to boycott ABC/Disney in the wake of Barr’s boneheaded blow-up, the network immediately understood it was on the brink of losing much more money than it had gained.

Even Bill O’Reilly described Roseanne’s tweet last Wednesday as “vicious,” adding that “ABC/Disney could not continue the show without insulting millions of Americans.”

Now back to the NFL—a money-making machine that has recently been slipping some gears.   You may have heard that NFL ratings dropped by a sizeable 7 percent last season.  Falling ratings threaten those massive TV contracts that add billions to NFL bank accounts.   Behind the scenes, a UBS Securities survey quietly discovered that the most commonly given reason by former fans for turning off the games was their “disapproval of players refusing to stand during the national anthem.”

And so you have the NFL and ABC each taking decisive action to restore confidence in its product.   The NFL says it’s all about the league’s commitment to America.  ABC says it’s all about reflecting the network’s unspecified “values.”

Oh please.  It’s all about money—and the anticipated loss of it.   It’s about the NFL and its team owners seeing their profit margins slightly shrink.   It’s about the potential of falling stock prices at ABC/Disney if an advertising boycott developed.

Last season when NFL players first began to kneel the league was caught in a bind, thanks to that annoying First Amendment guaranteeing “the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”   So the NFL took no direct action, which was fine with me.  But that was before the ratings dropped.  Personally, I wonder if the NFL would be taking its new stand if ratings had stayed put.

As for ABC, they rolled the Roseanne dice and got snake eyes.  Those are the gambles you take in business.  ABC brought back her show because they figured they could make money on her, which they did.  Suggestions of political thought control by ABC brass are ridiculous.  ABC (and all the other networks) only care about your politics if they can turn it into profit.

Naturally, if you’re ABC or the NFL you can’t come out and say that.  So you wrap your decision in the flag, or ‘values’ or whatever, and hope it plays well with the people who fill your coffers.   This is how the game is played off the field.  And anyone who tells you different is making money by doing it.

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