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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Disney Plus Disney Equals Trouble at 9

April 03, 1989|HOWARD ROSENBERG

"Why do we have to grow up?"

--Walt Disney

Hard Time on Planet Disney.

Here is a true fairy tale about KHJ-TV Channel 9 inside corporate Disneyland, a tale that reflects how things can work in this era of media conglomerates, which are like octopuses using one arm to nourish another.

It begins with a TV promo for a new CBS series about an alien named Jesse who is exiled to Earth and badgered by an electronic watchdog named Control:

"Wednesday ... in today's action army, they're looking for a few good aliens?

"... Jesse and Control re-up with the fighting green machine.

"... 'Hard Time on Planet Earth,' Wednesday at 8 on KCBS Channel 2."

The promo, featuring excerpts from the episode, ran at 7:13 p.m. last Wednesday on KHJ-TV Channel 9, during "Love Connection."

Yes, Channel 9 was promoting its competition, in effect urging viewers to watch a show on Channel 2 instead of Channel 9's own 8 p.m. newscast.

One station doing a good deed for another? Competitors cooperating? You joke. This is factual, remember, not a fantasy that tickles the heart and teases the imagination.

And the facts are that on Dec. 2, KHJ-TV was purchased by Walt Disney Co., and that "Hard Time on Planet Earth" is a Disney series.

In this case, Disney plus Disney equals trouble.

The promos for "Hard Time on Planet Earth" have been running on Channel 9 for two weeks, angering some of the news staff, who think what Disney is doing is Mickey Mouse.

"It's crummy policy, and most of the people in the news department are offended by it," said one new staff member who requested anonymity.

"The spots undercut our news team and also undercut even the sales department's efforts," the staffer charged. "In a sense, it could be seen as cheating advertisers, because we're working at cross-purposes here. The sales staff is selling the advertising, and then we're telling people to watch something else."

General manager Chuck Velona and sales manager Hank Oster did not return calls. News director Stephanie Brady, who reportedly protested running the promos in a memo to Disney Studios President Rich Frank, refused to comment. "I don't want to react in the press to this," she said.

Among those reported angriest about the promos was news executive producer Bill Northup.

"Perhaps I overreacted to it," he said. "It initially bothered me because it was suggesting to viewers that they should watch programming on another TV station opposite our own news. At this point, I don't think whoever placed the spots thought it all the way through."

He wishes upon a star.

It's "synergy," Disney executive Frank said in defending the company's use of Channel 9 to promote a Disney series running on Channel 2. Synergy is a trendy word in corporate circles used to describe total teamwork within a company.

"The philosophy is that we are the Walt Disney Co. and we have various assets (including the Disney Channel on cable TV), and we are a company that does work on synergy," Frank said in an interview. "If what one part of our company does helps what another part of our company is doing, then we weigh the pros and cons and act accordingly."

Frank said he received no memo about the promos from Brady. He didn't seem overly empathetic to the news staff's opposition to promoting a competing program, but added: "I can imagine how someone who has a specific job to do would be concerned that it was affecting his particular area. That's only natural."

Frank disagreed that promos for the competing CBS series undercut either the Channel 9 news or the selling of commercial time for the newscast. The two programs "have different audiences," he said.

As it turns out, another Channel 9 competitor, KNBC Channel 4, has joined Channel 2 in benefiting from Disney's synergism. That's because Channel 9 has also been running promos for "The Magical World of Disney," the 7 p.m. Sunday series on NBC. But "The Magical World of Disney" is opposite Channel 9 entertainment programming, not a newscast.

At this rate, the greater Disney's success in selling programs to the networks, the bigger Channel 9's burden. In a banner Disney year, Channel 9 could be blanketed with promos for its competitors. And in the same spirit, one of these days "Hard Time on Planet Earth" could do an episode about Jessie and Control visiting Channel 9.

How long will Channel 9 continue to run "Hard Time on Planet Earth" promos?

"To tell you the truth, we haven't come to a decision on that," Frank said. "We are trying to weigh the ratings to see if the KHJ ratings are down and the KCBS ratings are up."

Commercials for cable programs sometimes surface on traditional TV, and cross-promotion is rampant between radio and all kinds of TV. But this is strikingly different, and Frank agreed that it may be the first time that a TV station, on orders from its parent company, promoted the programs of its competitors.

"We've probably broken ground," Frank said. "I don't mind being a pioneer."

Synergy.

Walt Disney always said he wanted Disneyland to be like stepping into another world. And now, for the Channel 9 news, it is.

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