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School's back in session - time for a pop quiz. You've been assigned to research the legend of King Arthur: Would you call Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer as an expert source?Skip to next paragraph
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That's what ABC News did in a recent "20/20" news-magazine segment on the topic. Mr. Bruckheimer, producer of this summer's Walt Disney Company film "King Arthur," was prominently featured on the program alongside historians.
If the weakness of Bruckheimer's grasp of Arthurian lore was obvious, the connection between his movie and ABC television wasn't. Only at the end of the segment did the reporter mention that Disney owns ABC.
The movie producer was included in the show for business reasons, not because he was the most knowledgeable source, acknowledges David Westin, president of ABC News. "It made good sense for us, frankly," he says, "to take advantage of all the marketing and publicity for the movie."
While on air pitches are not new, such overt cross-promotion is a relatively new development as channels work to forward the interests of sister divisions within the same corporate parent. As the tentacles of media conglomerates reach further into many of the programs Americans watch, concern is rising that the content of shows, particularly news programming, is putting the business interests of parent companies before the public interest in getting unbiased information. The impact of "vertical integration" (which breeds cross-promotion) and other issues related to concentrated media ownership are likely to take on greater prominence this fall as an issue on the campaign trail. Congress is also preparing to debate the Telecommunication Act of 1996, which many observers say laid the groundwork for today's mergers.
"Media consolidation anger is suddenly in the mainstream," says Matthew Felling, director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs. The public is beginning to wake up to both the reasons for, and the consequences of, such a media environment, says Mr. Felling, who observes that one can trace a seemingly wide array of media outlets back to "a small handful of corporate owners."
The impact of media concentration has been quite evident to TV viewers searching for variety in Olympics coverage. There are six outlets, including CNBC, Bravo, and Telemundo - but they're all owned by NBC Universal.
Elsewhere on the dial, contestants on ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" are zipped off to Disney World, and Fox News broadcasts feature interviews with stars of Fox dramas. Often, such corporate connections are not divulged to viewers. "Everything you see on TV is becoming an ad for something else," says Felling.
News anchors may not openly shill products of corporate sponsors as they once did in the early days of television, but CBS's Dan Rather frequently uses the final two minutes of a broadcast to pitch shows such as the network's "60 Minutes II." That may seem innocuous to viewers, but some analysts say that such cross-promotion comes at a cost.
"Persuasion is at its most effective and frightening when everything seems so natural we don't notice it," says Jon Sloop, associate professor of communication studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. Such precious minutes could be devoted to news instead.
As more companies merge, watch for more tie-ins, say industry insiders. Don't be surprised, for example, to see more aggressive promotion for films and talent from Universal Studios on NBC. Until a merger with Universal Studios this summer, NBC had been the last of the big networks to partner with a major film studio.
"One of the advantages and abilities that we have is the ability to cross-promote," says Jeff Zucker, president of the NBC Universal Television Group. "That's one of the hallmarks of this [vertical] integration."
Though media mergers have been going on for decades, concern about corporate consolidation in some quarters has catapulted the issue to the forefront of public debate. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, has even taken up the issue.
Many factors have contributed to this shift in public awareness, including an Internet campaign from MoveOn.org, a liberal grassroots organization, in response to the June 2003 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruling allowing increased TV and newspaper ownership in select markets. The result was a record 2 million letters of protest to the FCC. (The rules were struck down in court this June and sent back to the FCC for revision.)