It's no secret that the NFL wields power far and wide, especially over the networks that are lucky enough to air games and lock down those almost-$600,000 per commercial checks. But is it getting networks to alter shows entirely, just to make the NFL look good?
At a recent New Yorker Festival panel discussion on "Television And Politics," the creators of CBS' The Good Wife, Robert and Michelle King, were asked by moderator Emily Nussbaum whether they felt any "cable envy" in terms of creative freedom. While Michelle waxed poetic about how CBS has given them a carte blanche on storylines, saying "We have never been waved off anything by CBS," her husband interjected one exception: "Football." Michelle seemed to blush and said, "Oh, well, in terms of political content." The audience laughed, and the discussion moved on.
That sounded an awful lot to us like the Kings were told to steer clear of the NFL on the show, which is known for addressing public controversies. The Kings didn't elaborate, but given the NFL's recent $765 million payout in a lawsuit over the league concealing what they knew about about the damage of repeated head injuries, it seems possible that the abandoned plot point might have been about concussions. At least that's one possible interpretation, as Slate's TV critic Willa Paskin speculated during the event:
Juicy intimation from great @emilynussbaum NYerF panel (it's possible I misinterpreted): CBS made Good Wife kill story abt NFL concussions— Willa Paskin (@willapaskin) October 6, 2013
But it could also have been a strained joke about how frequently football pre-empts The Good Wife. So I reached out to CBS, as well as the Kings themselves (who initially agreed to an interview only to back off once video of the event was released) for an explanation of the remark, and received the following non-answer via their studio PR rep:
We are the happiest writers in the world. It's almost unimaginable how much freedom we've been allowed to pursue hot-button issues. We've touched on everything from NSA wiretaps to abortion, from the FCC to Bitcoin, from the Defense Of Marriage Act to Syria. And every step of the way, CBS has been wildly supportive.
Which certainly doesn't sound like something you'd say if CBS had in fact never told you not to get into NFL storylines. It should be noted that NBC's Law and & Order: SVU aired an episode back in 2011 about the long-term effect of concussions on a retired football player, despite being the home of Sunday Night Football, with no apparent blowback. And once source close to the show I spoke with told me that no NFL storylines ever made it into Good Wife scripts—though that doesn't mean CBS didn't wave the Kings off an NFL idea before they started writing it down.
As CBS president and CEO Les Moonves cryptically told CNBC less than two months ago: "The power of the NFL is great."