By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 30, 2007
Thanks to a new NFL policy, something will soon be in short supply on news-media Web sites: video of almost anything related to the NFL or its players.
In a move designed to protect the Internet operations of its 32 teams, the pro football league has told news organizations that it will no longer permit them to carry unlimited online video clips of players, coaches or other officials, including video that the news organizations gather themselves on a team's premises. News organizations can post no more than 45 seconds per day of video shot at a team's facilities, including news conferences, interviews and practice-field reports.
The policy, announced last month with little fanfare, has frustrated journalists, who say it constricts the public's access to information about the nation's most popular spectator sport. A coalition of news organizations has been quietly lobbying the league for months to change the rule.
At the heart of the dispute is a collision between sports leagues and the news outlets that cover them. As the Internet becomes a premier source for video reports, teams are increasingly competing with the news media's Web sites for viewers and advertisers. By limiting access to news organizations, the teams hope to drive fans to the teams' sites for exclusive information and clips.
The NCAA, for example, recently generated controversy by booting a reporter out of the press box at a college baseball playoff game. The reporter was producing a live "blog" account of the game -- a violation, the collegiate association said, of the NCAA's monopoly on live coverage and an infringement on its lucrative contract with sportscaster ESPN. (The NCAA recently relented and said it would henceforth permit non-video blogging at its championships.)
The Washington Redskins have been at the center of this conflict for several years. The team has long denied access to independent videographers, including those from washingtonpost.com, to any of its practices or facilities. The team permits local television stations to reuse footage the stations shot for their news broadcasts on the Web, but that's the only exception. Other reporters cannot create original videos of the team for their sites. This has meant that the Redskins' Web site (Redskins.com) is the exclusive Internet source for longer video clips, including such newsworthy video as news conferences with players and Coach Joe Gibbs.
"There are a number of reasons for [barring videographers], but it's basically a content issue," said Redskins spokesman Chris Helein. "I won't hide . . . the fact that the NFL and everything that surrounds it is valuable content" that enhances a team's Web site.
Legal experts say the policies do not violate any laws, because the NFL is entitled to establish the terms of access to its privately owned facilities.
The NFL is the only major league sport that places such restrictions on Web video. Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL permit unlimited use of video on Web sites apart from game footage, said Jim Jenks, the Philadelphia Inquirer's executive sports editor and the outgoing president of the Associated Press Sports Editors, which has negotiated with the NFL over its online video policy since last fall.
The policy affects countless Web sites that cover the league, including those run by newspapers (such as washingtonpost.com), television and radio stations, magazines and independent outlets. It represents a sweeping restriction on the news media's use of streaming video, a popular feature of many Web sites.
Previously, the NFL restricted news Web sites to a "reasonable" amount of audio and video, said Greg Aiello, an NFL spokesman. But "reasonable" was never specifically defined, he said, and each team enforced the rules differently. Web sites not affiliated with the NFL have always been precluded from using game highlights.
The new policy covers everything shot by news organizations within team facilities. In addition to the 45-second-per-day limit, news organizations must also provide a link to NFL.com and a team's Web site for any team-related footage shown on those Web sites. The league also prohibits news outlets from selling advertising tied to video gathered at a team's facilities.
"We're trying to balance protection of our business assets with the equally important need to receive extensive news media coverage and communicate with as many fans as possible on a regular basis," Aiello said. "We have no interest in controlling or limiting what news Web sites do, except limiting the use of video that undermines our own Internet operations. We have important business interests on the Internet, and we have to be careful about that."
The league says it will allow unlimited Web video of "stand-up" reports at its facilities -- those in which a reporter speaks to the camera -- as long as no players, coaches or action is shown. Nor will it restrict reporters from producing still pictures or text stories while on team or league property.
Jenks said the biggest losers under the 45-second rule will be NFL fans. "They're not going to get the best content" from the NFL or team Web sites, he said. "The NFL isn't known for its objectivity or its reporting skill; it's known for football. So fans won't get the hard questions asked there, and newspaper sites won't have the enriched content that we could do."
Jenks is hoping to meet again with the NFL's representatives before the season starts to liberalize the new policy.
In the meantime, the 45-second rule has prompted a satirical video by Houston Chronicle sports columnist John McClain. In the video, which has been posted on several sites, McClain interviews Houston Texans players and team owner Bob McNair while a colleague, eager to keep the proceedings under the 45-second limit, holds a stopwatch. Before the players can complete their answers to McClain's questions, his colleague shouts, "Time!" or "Cut!" and the interviews abruptly end.
In introducing the footage, McClain says: The video "shows you just how restrictive [the new policy] can be."