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Time Warner Profits From Flap Over Rap : Controversy: The song 'Cop Killer' prompts calls for a boycott of firm's products. It's not working.

June 24, 1992|ALAN CITRON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Day by day, the furor over the song "Cop Killer" by rap singer Ice-T intensifies. On Tuesday, the Los Angeles City Council and the county Board of Supervisors joined those condemning the song and the company that distributes it, media giant Time Warner Inc. Others have even called for a boycott of Time Warner products.

But the average consumer doesn't appear to be swayed.

"Body Count," the Ice-T album that contains "Cop Killer," is climbing the charts, no doubt aided by publicity from the controversy. Filmgoers are lining up in record numbers to see "Batman Returns," which was just released by Time Warner's movie division. And readers continue to pick up Time Warner publications such as Time, Sports Illustrated and People.

The failure of the Time Warner boycott, media experts say, illustrates how difficult it is to successfully target a faceless conglomerate whose products are not readily identified with the firm.

Time Warner, created by the 1990 merger of Time Inc. and Warner Communications Inc., is the world's largest media company, with annual revenue of more than $12 billion, and interests in everything from theme parks to cable television systems. Its artists run the stylistic gamut from Madonna to Travis Tritt. Its movies include "Lethal Weapon 3" and "JFK."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 25, 1992 Home Edition Business Part D Page 2 Column 5 Financial Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
Paula Abdul--Virgin Records is the recording label for singer Paula Abdul. A chart in Wednesday's editions listed her with the wrong label.

"Nobody knows who owns these (products)," said Frank Mankiewicz, a Washington-based vice chairman of Hill & Knowlton, a public relations firm. "The problem is the size and scale of the company."

The Ice-T song, which was released by Time Warner's music unit, has ignited public outrage because of such anti-police lyrics as "I'm 'bout to dust some cops off." It has been condemned by everyone from Vice President Dan Quayle to some of the nation's largest police unions.

The trend toward increasingly violent songs even troubles some executives at rival music companies. "There are some people in the record business who are willing to stand by and say it's OK to make money putting out messages of mutilation and murder," one said.

But Time Warner has refused to pull the album from distribution on grounds that it is an act of creative expression that contributes to "the open discussion and exchange of ideas."

It is an argument that has been used over the years in defense of artists as diverse as the Beatles and 2 Live Crew, who have been targets of boycotts.

Josh Baran, an executive vice president of Edelman Public Relations Worldwide, which advises corporations on public affairs issues, said Time Warner's stance is strategically sound.

"Time Warner is 100% right," Baran said. "They should stand by this artist and the distribution of the product, whether they agree with it or not. Boycotts can have some impact, but in this case all it's going to do is increase the sales of this album."

Indeed, music industry sources say the Ice-T album is selling briskly, even though it has been taken off the shelves by some retail chains. It sold 17,000 copies this week, compared to 15,000 copies the week before. It is ranked No. 62 on the pop charts, up from 66th a week ago.

"Batman Returns," meanwhile, took in $47.7 million during its first weekend--more than half of the total industry box office gross. It is expected to dominate the summer film season.

Mankiewicz, who advised Time Warner on media strategy for the controversial film "JFK," said it is easier to launch a consumer boycott against a specific product than a conglomerate.

Starkist Seafood Co., the world's largest tuna canner, agreed two years ago to stop using tuna nets that were also trapping dolphins after a boycott by environmentalists and others. Boycotters have also gained concessions from brewer Adolph Coors Co. over the years.

Boycotting is hardly an American pastime, however. In a recent nationwide survey by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, only 18% of the respondents said they had participated in a boycott of any kind over a three-year period, and less than 1% did so for moral reasons.

Time Warner has declined to comment on the discussions that led up to its decision to stand firm behind "Cop Killer." But media experts said its strategy was probably in place well in advance.

"The first thing you want to do is anticipate this sort of thing," said one corporate adviser, who asked not to be named. "You have to make the hard decisions in advance about what you want to do and what your rationale is for doing it . . . . Then you must be prepared to forcefully advocate your position. You don't want to be caught with your pants down."

Those same experts said only one event might change Time Warner's position.

"If it impacted 'Batman Returns,' you'd see how quickly they'd pull it (the Ice-T song)," one expert said. "Artistic freedom or no artistic freedom--in the end it all comes down to business."

Time Warner stock closed at $110 per share, off 75 cents, in New York Stock Exchange trading Tuesday. However, the stock has outperformed the market recently, largely in reaction to the success of "Batman Returns."

Too Big to Boycott?

Time Warner Inc. is the target of a boycott movement for releasing the controversial song, "Cop Killer," by rapper Ice-T, below. Consumers may not realize that they support the world's largest media company when they patronize the firm's diverse entertainment divisions, at right.

FILM: A long list of hit films, including "Batman Returns," "Lethal Weapon 3" and "JFK."

TELEVISION: Such popular TV series as "Murphy Brown" and "Growing Pains."

THEME PARKS: Six Flags Corp. (half-owned by Time Warner) owns Magic Mountain in Valencia and parks in Chicago, Houston, St. Louis and New Jersey and operates parks in Texas and Georgia.

PUBLISHING: Magazines such as Time, Sports Illustrated and People and publisher Little, Brown.

CABLE: Time Warner owns the HBO Network and Time Warner Cable.

MUSIC: Warner Bros. Records, Atlantic Recording Group and Elektra labels, including such artists as R.E.M., Color Me Badd, Natalie Cole and Paula Abdul.

* RELATED STORY: B3

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