Time Warner Inc. is bracing itself in New York today for an onslaught of complaints regarding the firm's involvement in controversial rap music as stockholders gather for the media giant's annual shareholders' meeting.
Rap critic C. Delores Tucker, chairwoman of the National Political Congress of Black Women, and stockholders associated with William Bennett, former secretary of education, are expected to confront the Time Warner board about the firm's continued role in distributing allegedly violent and sexually degrading music.
"We're calling on the people who run Time Warner to stop putting out these horrible lyrics," said Bennett, whose Empower America organization will air TV commercials blasting Time Warner's rap stance this weekend on cable stations in Los Angeles, New York and Washington. "There are many decent people in this country trying to raise families, and this vulgar trash is harmful to children."
In 1992, the company's annual meeting became a forum for shareholder protest about rap music lyrics. This year it is expected to be among a number of questions raised about the direction being taken by the debt-burdened entertainment conglomerate.
Time Warner Chairman Gerald Levin will probably be asked about his plans to sell off what some analysts regard as prime assets. Levin, who recently sold 51% of the firm's Six Flags theme park operation, is negotiating to unload several small cable systems as well as 49% of the company's prestigious music publishing division.
Warner/Chappell, which last year generated more than $500 million in revenue, is regarded by many as the finest music publishing operation in the world, with a library that includes classic compositions by Cole Porter and Rodgers & Hart.
"Selling off part of the music publishing division is like selling off a portion of the crown jewels," said Harold Vogel, analyst and managing director of Cowen & Co. "I doubt whether such a move could possibly strengthen [Levin's] position on Wall Street. If anything, it's likely to raise even more questions about his strategic plan."
Levin has been under pressure to boost the price of Time Warner stock, which has traded between $35 and $40 a share for almost two years.
Shares rallied late Wednesday, closing up $1.25 at $40, following heightened speculation that Seagram Co. is close to selling its 15% stake in the media giant to billionaire investor Ronald O. Perelman.
Selling Warner/Chappell fits with Levin's plan to trim as much as $3 billion off the company's current $15-billion debt load. Those efforts will offset the additional $3.5 billion in debt expected as soon as two of the firm's recent cable acquisitions close.
Senior music officials have had preliminary talks with potential buyers willing to pay an estimated $700 million for 49% of Warner/Chappell.
Michael Fuchs, chairman of HBO and Warner Music Group, declined to discuss details of the potential publishing sale, but said, "If this music publishing deal ever happens, people will understand what we've done and say it's very clever."
Reaction to the proposed move among executives and attorneys in the entertainment industry has been negative.
"History has proven that there is no upside to selling a music publishing company," said entertainment attorney Don Passman, whose clients include Janet Jackson. "Every corporation that has ever done it lived to regret it."
Meanwhile, executives at Time Warner and Warner Music declined to comment Wednesday on the renewed attack on rap lyrics.
Time Warner's affiliation with the controversial genre has provoked sharp debate since 1992, when the company clamped down on "incendiary" rap in reaction to Ice-T's song "Cop Killer."
The company stopped distributing the song at Ice-T's request two months after police groups picketed Time Warner's shareholders meeting in July, 1992.
Ice-T left the label soon after, triggering an exodus of gangsta rappers, including Da Lench Mob and Paris, from other Time Warner-affiliated labels.
But the rap issue reignited months later after the widow of a Texas trooper sued Time Warner, alleging that her husband's murder was inspired by the "cop killing" music of controversial rapper Tupac Amaru Shakur. The case is scheduled to go to trial Oct. 23 in federal court in Victoria, Tex.
Interscope Records, the Westwood label that distributes Shakur in affiliation with Time Warner, has since banned its artists from recording "cop killing" lyrics, but the firm has done nothing to restrict songs that depict youths murdering one another or engaging in violent sexual encounters.
The National Political Congress of Black Women, which orchestrated the anti-rap hearings on Capitol Hill last year, has already called for government restrictions on gangsta rap. Empower America, whose board includes such powerful figures as Malcom Forbes Jr., spent $10,000 to produce an anti-rap advertisement and another $25,000 to purchase time on cable stations this weekend.
Bennett acknowledges that other entertainment conglomerates, including Thorn-EMI, Sony, PolyGram and Bertelsmann, have each recently stepped up their affiliation with potentially offensive rap music. But for now, he says, Empower America has set its sights on stopping Time Warner, primarily because he sees the firm as the "worst purveyor of offensive filth in the entertainment industry."