The Wages of Synergy

The Wages of Synergy

Synergy—it's all well and good. But media consolidation's dark side often raises its head.


"The synergies are under every rock we turn over," declared Michael Eisner when the Mouse Kingdom absorbed Cap Cities/ABC in 1996, the same year The Nation's National Entertainment State made its debut. Ever since, the media conglomerates have indeed been looking in every nook and cranny of their ever-expanding empires for ways to cross-promote. This fall, AOL Time Warner left no stone unturned in heralding the release of its smash hit movie Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. By enlisting its considerable forces–AOL, its TV networks (HBO, CNN, WB and the Cartoon Network), its magazines (including Time, Entertainment Weekly and People) and its ticketing operation, Moviefone–AOL Time Warner worked marketing magic. By opening weekend, surveys showed an incredible 100 percent awareness among moviegoers that Harry Potter was coming to a cineplex near them. You had to be under a rock to miss this one.

But when it comes to conjuring corporate synergies, not even Harry Potter's wand is as potent as the network news. Soon after the Disney merger, Good Morning America was broadcasting live from Disneyworld to mark the theme park's twenty-fifth anniversary. Even then, as the era of megamergers was just beginning, it was clear that there was, as New Yorker media critic Ken Auletta put it, "scant evidence that synergy is journalism's friend." As time passed, evidence to the contrary began to pile up: News Corporation axed the BBC from its satellite TV service in China so as not to offend the government there; CBS sat on a 60 Minutes story about Big Tobacco that might have jeopardized its upcoming merger with Westinghouse; and ABC shelved a report about pedophiles at Disney World. Less sensational instances of corporate meddling are now viewed as business as usual, with only media critics and other pointyheads bothering to protest parent-company encroachment on network news time.

Disney is hardly alone in the relentless-self-promotion department. CBS flogged Survivor with plugs on its news shows. Asked last summer on CNN's Reliable Sources about guarding the line between the news and entertainment divisions, CBS's Early Show executive producer, Steve Friedman, was unapologetic: "That line was over a long, long time ago…. Now you can lament and say it's terrible. You can say it's over, the civilization is over. You know what, to compete you've got to compete. And we are in this to win. And we will use this show to help us win."

That line does seem to belong to some distant past. A November 19 report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that the morning network news shows spent 33 percent of their air time selling something; on average 20 percent of the stories were for books, movies, TV shows, music or products their company produced. The study noted that the network's ownership of such products wasn't always disclosed. Friedman told the Boston Globe that while misrepresentation was wrong, complete disclosure was impractical. "We only have two hours a day. You're going to spend all your time just [disclosing] ownership."

Here's another solution: Go back to doing news.

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