By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 14, 2006
"Redskins Generation," on WUSA, Channel 9, looks a lot like any other sports-feature program. It has highlight clips of the team's games, interviews with players and coaches and amusing features about just about everything related to the Redskins.
The weekly show, however, has an unusual pedigree. Although the program airs on Channel 9, the station has no hand in its production or content. "Redskins Generation" is owned and produced entirely by the Redskins. The team pays the station a fee to air the show during the football season. In the strictest sense, "Redskins Generation" isn't a program at all, but a program-length commercial designed to tout the team.
The show is one of several Redskins-backed radio and TV programs that have dotted the local airwaves this season. Many professional and college teams across the country, of course, have coach-interview programs on broadcast stations in their cities. But the Redskins have been among the most aggressive sports organizations in seeding local radio and TV outlets with team-owned programs. Thanks to owner Daniel Snyder's investment in a new broadcast-production studio at Redskins Park last summer, the team is self-sufficient; it doesn't have to go outside its headquarters in Ashburn to create TV shows.
Viewers, however, are unlikely to understand the extent of the team's involvement because the programs carry minimal, and often cryptic, disclosure about the Redskins' role. On "Redskins Generation," for example, an opening graphic says the program is "a presentation of Redskins.com TV." The only hint of the origins of "Redskins Game Plan," another weekly TV show the team owns, comes with the closing credits, when a single line of text appears on screen reading, "Copyright, 2006 Washington Redskins."
The Redskins have a stake in programs airing on three of Washington's four leading network affiliates, including WUSA, WRC (Channel 4) and WTTG (Channel 5). Channel 4 carries "Redskins Game Plan" and Channel 5 broadcasts the similar "Redskins Game Day." Channel 9 has two shows, "Redskins Generation," which is geared toward children, and "Redskins Late Night," a team-themed entertainment show. WRC also broadcasts "The Joe Gibbs Show," a weekly interview program that is owned by the team, which splits advertising revenues with WRC.
The Redskins tried to place a show on WJLA, Channel 7, this season, too, but the station declined, saying the financial terms were inadequate, said Fred Ryan, president of WJLA's parent company, Allbritton Communications.
On radio, WJFK-FM, the Redskins' flagship station for the past five seasons, has aired a Monday night program hosted by Larry Michael, the team's play-by-play announcer. Michael is a vice president of the team, and also is host of "Redskins Generation." Sports-talk radio station WTEM-AM broadcasts another weekly interview program with Gibbs under a deal with the club.
Soon, the Redskins might be able to cut out some of the middlemen. Snyder is nearing a deal to buy three small radio stations in the Washington area that would carry the team's games and related programs. His new venture, Red Zebra Broadcasting, also is interested in acquiring TV stations.
The Redskins-owned programs often feature familiar local reporters who cover the team as journalists. George Michael, Channel 4's veteran sports director and perhaps the area's best-known sportscaster, is intimately involved in the Redskins' paid programming efforts. Michael (no relation to Larry Michael) serves as executive producer of "Redskins Game Plan" and sometimes appears on the show. He also hosts "The Joe Gibbs Show" for the station (another Michael-hosted show on Channel 4, "Redskins Report," is independent of the team, he said).
Although the programs ensure visibility and a generally sunny view for the Redskins no matter how well the team is faring, the shows raise a journalistic question: Can local broadcasters fairly report on the Redskins when they're part of what is essentially a team-sponsored promotional exercise?
Although the programs do not ignore obvious bad news, they tend to feature upbeat -- and at times adulatory -- segments about the team.
On "Redskins Game Day" on Dec. 24, Channel 5 news reporter Michelle Sigona spotlighted the Hogettes, the quirky group of male fans who attend games wearing dresses and pig snouts. Another piece profiled a Redskins cheerleader identified only as Jessica. The show was hosted by another reporter from the station, Lou Holder, who wore a Redskins-logo polo shirt on camera.
On "Redskins Game Plan" that same day, Channel 4 sports anchor Lindsay Czarniak interviewed Redskins defensive coach Gregg Williams about the team's victory over the Dallas Cowboys a week earlier. When Williams modestly credited others, Czarniak countered, "I feel like you're not giving yourself enough credit because there are people out there saying that was the best defensive performance in Redskins history."
Redskins spokesman Karl Swanson calls the shows "fan programs." He said: "They are what they are. Are they largely from the team's point of view? Yes. We're presenting a point of view the fans will be comfortable with. Obviously, we're satisfied with the arrangements."
Andy Pollin, WTEM's program director, said he wrestled with the journalistic ethics when he was the host of "Redskins Game Day" on Channel 5 during the 2000 and 2001 seasons (he's no longer associated with the program). "In the back of my mind," Pollin said, "there was always someone saying, 'Don't blast Dan Snyder if you want to keep this nice little paycheck you're getting [from the team] every week.' "
But station executives defend the journalistic integrity of the arrangement, saying the team doesn't dictate show content.
"Yes, our people are working for the team, but they're never required to say anything by them," said Duffy Dyer, general manager of WTTG. He added, "The Redskins have never called to complain" about the program.
Asked whether that reflected the generally positive tone of the program, Dyer repeated, "The Redskins have never complained about it."
Michael Jack, WRC's president and general manager, said Michael hasn't pulled any punches with Gibbs on his interview show, grilling the coach on various player controversies -- such as LaVar Arrington's playing time and the Sean Taylor spitting incident -- throughout the season. Jack said it was not relevant who owned the program because the station has editorial control of the shows. "I see no conflict," he said.
Stations usually precede the presentation of "infomercials" -- program-length commercials -- by stating, "The following is paid programming." But no such disclaimers or explainers appear before, during or after "Redskins Generation." In an interview, WUSA General Manager Darryll Green described "Generation" as "paid programming," but said further disclosure was unnecessary. "It's just their [the Redskins'] show. It's their time. It's very simple," he said.
From an editorial perspective, George Michael drew a distinction between "Redskins Game Plan" and "Redskins Report," the freewheeling panel discussion program that features Michael, ex-Redskins John Riggins and Sonny Jurgensen and Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon. The opinions expressed on "Redskins Report," Michael said, often irritate Redskins officials and players. "They've cringed at all of us from time to time," he said. "We all say what we believe, and it's not always 100 percent nice. It's certainly not the way people at Redskins Park would like it. I know that some of the stuff we say has really upset them"
"Redskins Report" remains one of the few Redskins-themed programs on the air that the team has no financial interest in. "Redskins Game Plan," on the other hand, belongs to the team. Michael said he is free to produce pieces that the team might not like on "Game Plan," but the team has had no objections to anything that has appeared on it.
WTEM's Pollin said he believes that the Redskins' financial ties to local sportscasters do affect how they report. He cites Gibbs's surprise departure as head coach in 1993. Michael was aware of Gibbs's imminent decision, Pollin said, but withheld the news until after another station had reported the story. When Michael told Pollin that he had kept the story quiet, Pollin said, "I wanted to say, 'Well, George, then that's what you get for checkbook journalism.' "
Michael denies that financial considerations played any role in the episode. And he disputes Pollin's characterization, saying that Gibbs disclosed his decision to him in confidence and that Michael promised not to betray Gibbs's trust.
"Joe Gibbs and I have been good friends, and I'm proud of it," Michael said. "Most reporters would have said, 'That's news, and I'm going with it.' But I saw no problem [not reporting the story]. This one didn't bother me at all. Not at all."