Two PBS stalwarts offer excellent back-to-back documentaries Feb. 9 – one extremely timely, the other a still-relevant dip into the way-back machine. Produced with the New York Times, “Frontline’s” “The Fantasy Sports Gamble” delves into betting sites like FanDuel and DraftKings, which have coyly operated at the fringes of gambling, enlisting entertainment companies and professional leagues as partners, while virtually buying off media with their ostentatious advertising budgets. That follows “The Perfect Crime,” a look back at the infamous 1924 murder case of Leopold and Loeb, a reminder that sensational “crimes of the century” predated O.J. Simpson.
Drawing from the Times’ extensive reporting on online sports wagering, “Frontline” had the good fortune to assemble its report – produced and directed by Frank Koughan, who wrote it with Times reporter-correspondent Walt Bogdanich – as the industry was threatening to implode. That included revelations that FanDuel and DraftKings employees had potentially gamed the system by winning money on each other’s sites; action by several states to ban the websites; and, most recently, a major payment processor severing ties to these enterprises.
FanDuel executive Matt King insists he’s shocked, shocked that anyone would link what his company is peddling to gambling, hiding behind semantics as he refers to the ability to win money based on the outcome of sporting events as an “entertainment product.” Times reporters also speak with young gamblers (er, sorry, “entertainment product users”) who have lost thousands of dollars on the sites, and travel to Curacao — an island nation known for its liberal regulation through which money has been routed — where the correspondents run into the investigative-reporting equivalent of a brick wall.
It’s important stuff, not just because of the potential damage these sites can cause, but also because they have gained credibility through sponsorship deals with sports-related media, including ties to Fox, ESPN and sports-radio stations that are awash in such ads. Revenue, meanwhile, has grown to eye-popping levels, with Bogdanich and colleagues James Glanz and Augie Armendariz noting the betting rose to an estimated $2.6 billion in 2015.
Of course, regulators are playing what amounts to a game of Whac-a-Mole against the urge to bet on contests, and the ability of Web operations, either above board or operating in the shadows, to cash in by tapping into that lucrative appetite. Indeed, the fact that these companies flourished by exploiting a loophole in Congress’ attempt to clamp down on online gambling doesn’t inspire much faith in law as a remedy.
Simply put, where there’s a will, there’s usually a way. That’s not to say “Frontline” and the Times haven’t done yeoman’s work in shedding light on the unsavory nature of these sites. But despite the best intentions of the attorneys general interviewed, in terms of achieving more than forcing these outfits to regroup or reorganize, well, don’t bet on it.
As for “The Perfect Crime,” it’s worth remembering the modern age has no monopoly on salacious crime reporting, or on engaging in soul searching about deteriorating social norms in the wake of horrific acts.
This “American Experience” production focuses on the high-profile 1924 case centering on the cold-blooded murder committed by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, as well as Clarence Darrow’s impassioned defense – really a campaign against the death penalty – to save their lives. For those too focused on the here and now, it’s a timely reminder that long before O.J. or Robert Durst, there was the strange, unnerving case of Leopold and Loeb.
Children of privilege, the 19-year-old duo planned to commit a murder as a sign of their superiority, all but randomly choosing 14-year-old Bobby Franks as their victim. The plot quickly unraveled, leading to confessions. Loeb’s desperate parents retained Darrow, who, in the waning days of his career, mounted less a defense of the boys (who pleaded guilty, thus avoiding a jury trial) than an indictment of the society that bred them, as well as of capital punishment.
Produced and directed by Cathleen O’Connell, the film captures how the media glommed onto the case and the trial, including the pair’s belief that they were Nietzsche-ian supermen unfettered by law or morality. Their lack of remorse included snickering in the courtroom.
Crammed into an hour, the documentary races through all this, with actor James Cromwell reading Darrow’s poetic summation. Yet there’s an underlying sense of how this fretting about wayward youth and especially their relationship with culture (in this case, the Jazz Age) periodically recurs, the main difference being that media is so much more pervasive and unavoidable today.
From that perspective, this 92-year-old case still resonates – an American Experience that, given TV’s fascination with true crime, is one of those areas where history appears destined to keep repeating itself.