LOS ANGELES — 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?
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.)
But it's the media environment itself that is waking people up, many observers say. Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" during last January's SuperBowl on CBS made a national audience more aware of cross-ownership within the media. It was MTV, a sister network of CBS, that was responsible for producing the SuperBowl halftime show. (The two entities are owned by Viacom.) Intercooperation is a high priority at CBS, as Les Moonves, the newly installed Viacom copresident, told an audience of TV critics this July. "We're working hard to make sure all the pieces work hand in hand with each other, radio, billboards, bus sides, on-air promotion."
Large media holdings can provide a boon to consumers because of the resources available to various divisions of a parent company. But some argue that it can work against the public good .
After a train derailment last year released toxic gases into the air surrounding Minot, N.D., authorities could not use six of the local eight radio stations to warn residents because the stations broadcast only prerecorded shows. As a result of the Telecommunication Act of 1996, national media conglomerate Clear Channel Communications owns all six stations, critics say. In accord with corporate guidelines, cost cutting has led to stations airing prepackaged programming without any on-site supervision.
In a poll released this July, a survey of national media workers conducted by media unions revealed that more than 86 percent of journalists believe that consolidation is leading to more entertainment and weather over serious news. These programs are cheaper to produce and score higher ratings, maximizing profits for the parent company.
But others say that the same conglomerates have also provided alternatives for those wanting more substantive news. In a recent issue of Reason magazine, Ben Compaine, author of "Who Owns the Media? Competition and Concentration in the Mass Media," wrote, "Today there are 24-hour news channels (CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC), plus the financial news channels CNBC and CNNfn. There are regional all-news channels like New England Cable News. Channels such as the History Channel provide daily programming similar to the documentaries that used to be 'specials' on the broadcast networks and PBS."
Media growth isn't all bad says Robert Thompson, a media expert at Syracuse University in New York. "When I was young, we had three major networks," he says. "Today, there are at least five, even in the midst of all this consolidation."
Still, many argue that more could be done to provide a greater plurality of voices among the media. One of those critics, surprisingly, is Jonathan Edelstein, an FCC commissioner who disagrees with the body's attempt to relax rules restricting corporate ownership. Following the court ruling against the FCC, Mr. Edelstein issued the following statement: "The Commission should truly act in the interest of the American public rather than the corporate interests of media giants who want to get even bigger."
Expect to see plenty of policy prescriptions offered up as the campaign season progresses and as Congress prepares to review the Telecommunication Act of 1996. Author and anticonsolidation activist Robert McChesney would like to see more plurality of media and more government funding of public broadcasting.
And for extra credit on the pop quiz, the pundit recommends that concerned media consumers "call their [US] representative and demand there be hearings in every state about the role of media ownership, so that the new rules reflect the role it plays in everyone's life, not just the powerful lobbyists."
Major conglomerates and a selection of holdings, plus their 2003 revenue. (Excludes music and book publishing.)
TimeWarner - $39.6 billion
Holdings: Warner Bros, AOL, CNN, HBO, Time Warner Cable, Turner, Cartoon Network, The WB, New Line Cinema, Castle Rock Entertainment, DC Comics, People, Entertainment Weekly
The Walt Disney Company - $28.4 billion
Holdings: ABC, Disney Channel, ESPN, A&E, History Channel, E! Entertainment, Buena Vista, Touchstone Pictures, 10 TV stations, 60-plus radio stations, Miramax Films, and theme parks.
Viacom - $26.6 billion
Holdings: CBS and UPN networks, over 35 TV stations, MTV, Showtime, Nickelodeon, BET, Paramount Pictures, Blockbuster Video
News Corporation - $17.5 billion
Holdings: FOX Network, DirecTV, 34 TV stations, National Geographic Channel, FX, 20th Century Fox, the New York Post, The Times (of London)
NBC Universal (spinoff of GE) - $13 billion
NBC, Telemundo, Universal Pictures, Universal Parks & Resorts, USA Network, CNBC, Bravo, MSNBC, PAX, 14 TV stations, Sci-Fi Channel
Source: Columbia Journalism Review's Who Owns What?