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COLUMN

AOL’s All-Seeing Eye on TV

Philip Burrowes

Perhaps the greatest fear people have of media conglomerates is their potential to grow until they monopolize the airwaves. Yet there seems to have been more cannibalization than cooperation on both sides of the tube. CBS’ recent decision, for example, to air repeats of “Amazing Race” on UPN, has generated horrible ratings. “The March to Madness,” UPN’s hour-long tribute to the NCAA basketball tourney (read: an ad for CBS’ broadcast of the Final Four), ran afoul of several UPN affiliates owned by News Corp. If the network champion can’t pull this sort of thing off, then who can?

Rupert Murdoch may just have been trying to keep someone else from doing what he had long dreamed: owning the world. While he has indeed amassed a formidable army of venues in various forms of media, their seeming dedication to noninterference has left them largely incoherent. Lately there has been a push to advertise 20th Century Fox films on the Fox Network, but it has actually centered around the work of Lucasfilm. Nor do people seem to realize that it’s the same Fox; Murdoch has the goods but not the brand.

Disney’s 1995 purchase of ABC (through Capital Cities), given ABC’s established name and the Mouse House’s merchandising prowess, seemed better tailored to turn television programming into a giant commercial. In reality that has not been the case, for aside from “The Wonderful World of Disney,” the Disney brand name’s use has been relegated to the Saturday morning television “ghetto.” ABC’s bass-ackwards foray into cable -- ABC Family -- has not been promoted aggressively, no doubt because that channel’s previous incarnation under Fox had not benefitted significantly from that network’s excessive branding. Once again, News Corp. shows up.

Yet the WB has had issues that can’t be reasonably blamed on Rupert Murdoch, although Ted Turner makes a pretty good stand-in for him. After taking all its animation off the airwaves of other channels, Warner Bros. faced stiff competition from the Cartoon Network’s “Toonami” animation block. The network’s response? Simply take the Toonami name (and occasional show) from the AOL-by-Turner subsidiary. For those of you unwilling to see anything grand and conspiratory behind kiddie cartoons, look no further than the worlds of auto racing, wherein TNT and NBC constantly promote the other’s upcoming programming.

Are we truly missing out on anything due to this lack of synergy? Each attempt described above, after all, doesn’t seem to be something we’d want to see repeated elsewhere. Is it something inherent, or something in the execution?

Maybe it’s neither. Consider the past Olympics, both in Sydney and Utah. Following the berating NBC received for airing events “plausibly live,” (read part two: tape-delay) in this brave new world of instantaneous online news, the network employed its own form of triplecast. Using MSNBC and CNBC, a much higher number of events could be aired, and more in-depth coverage provided. A similar tactic has been used to cover the post-game interviews and press conferences of NBA Finals games.

Why is that a more respectable route? It’s really promoting the station instead of the event. The initial Olympic “triplecast” -- the pay-per-view sale of the events in Barcelona -- was an economic failure, suggesting there just wasn’t that much interest to support large-scale coverage in this country. More remarkably, sports, especially relatively esoteric ones, do not fit well into the programming paradigms of either mini-BC, so it was not as if NBC could have drawn significantly more viewers to its flagship network. Rather, it was trying to draw people to cable, to get a name-brand edge over all the other around-the-clock news outlets. Next time that avid women’s hockey fan thought news, he’d think Microsoft.

Okay, so it had its glitches, and NBC will forever dramatize international sporting events to a ridiculously and ironically American-centric extent, but the point stands. Lords cannot reap large payments from their vassals if upon the slightest success the vassal is punished. The same is true of the media emperor; it must make a choice between furthering itself or furthering the empire. At the very least, someone get it over with and put the Time-Warner eye in the middle of AOL’s neo-Freemason logo.