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The Trouble With Synergy: A Media Family Feud

August 01, 2000|BRIAN LOWRY

"Synergy." If you don't spend hours wading through entertainment industry press releases, you may be relatively unfamiliar with the term, which has become as common in Hollywood as inflated box-office estimates.

Synergy refers to the way huge companies use one asset to promote and support another, theoretically making the sum of their assets greater than the various parts. There's synergy, for example, between Walt Disney Co.'s TV production arm and its ABC network, which in turn operates synergistically with the studio's theme parks, broadcasting specials from Disney World that can boost ratings and lure people to the park.

There's synergy when the Fox network runs a prime-time special in advance of Fox's film release of "X-Men" or places Fox-produced shows such as "The X-Files" on Fox's FX cable channel.

Even news outfits aren't above such cooperation, as demonstrated by CBS News' shilling for "Survivor" and "Big Brother" on "The Early Show" and elsewhere, or the reports on CBS news radio station KNX-AM (1070) that are really just thinly veiled plugs for the network's prime-time lineup.

For years, studio executives have pontificated about the merits of synergy, inviting this question: If synergy is so swell, why doesn't it work better? Why hasn't Disney produced more hits for ABC? Why isn't the Fox network mining the studio's feature arm more effectively and vice versa? Why aren't there dozens of best-selling Time Warner Books predicated on Warner Bros. movies and TV shows?

The acquisition of the Los Angeles Times by Tribune Co. has brought this riddle into focus on a personal level, helping me reach the following conclusion: Synergy ultimately has to be carried out by individuals who don't always get along with their corporate brethren, throwing a wrench into what on paper should be a well-oiled machine.

Consider the logical synergistic connection for the Calendar section, which covers the arts and entertainment. Tribune also owns local TV station KTLA-TV, an ideal venue to take advantage of our insights and resources. Moreover, Tribune has sought to benefit from owning television stations along with newspapers in other cities.

Sounds great, except for one little problem: Very few people in the immediate vicinity can stand KTLA's primary entertainment personality, Sam Rubin--or at least the persona he projects on TV--and the feeling is clearly mutual.

Rubin, of course, is a regular on "The KTLA Morning News," Los Angeles' foremost clown college. Not only is the level of giddiness beyond anything I can handle before 10 on a Saturday night, but the morning show embodies just about everything that bugs me about what is generously called local news.

Speaking in exaggerated tones that can start dogs howling within a 10-mile radius, Rubin is billed as a reporter but pretty much lifts everything he reads from the trade papers, usually without crediting them. If Daily Variety columnist Army Archerd calls in sick, Rubin might as well stay home too.

The "Morning News" crew is upfront about using the show as a tool for self-promotion--hardly a rare attribute in Hollywood--but at times this self-indulgence, given that we're talking about public airwaves, gets out of hand. As just one example, Rubin gave out a Times reporter's e-mail address on the air, in a snit over a story about the ratings sweeps because it didn't mention how well his show had performed. (It didn't mention any other morning program either, but to Rubin this was entirely beside the point.)

Admittedly, a lot of people must enjoy "The Morning News." In May, the show ranked behind only ABC's "Good Morning America" locally during its time slot, on average seen in roughly 190,000 (or about 3.7%) of the area's homes. So in the interest of fairness, I invited Rubin to vent his grievances regarding The Times.

Here is his excerpted response: "Due to the recent purchase of The Times, Howard Rosenberg has found that his stock holdings have doubled in value and more. This of course irks us highly paid TV types. We don't mind that Howard is more respected than we are, what we really mind is that he is richer than we are.

"Brian Lowry is afforded the opportunity to write just one column a week, and as inexplicable as sometimes his columns can be, readers have the opportunity to pore over his words again and again because of the physical medium of newsprint. Our material, which requires considerably more work, just flies through the air, and then vanishes, gone forever. Of course on certain days, maybe that is a good thing.

"Here are my specific gripes about The Times. The Calendar section only comes out five times per week. What is that Thursday thing? Do you guys all get the day off? The Times, which enjoys a near monopoly in terms of local newspapers, does a terrible job in covering other local media. Guess what: People actually watch local TV and listen to local radio. You would hardly know this from reading the paper.

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