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Cornelius Accuses Viacom of Advertising Conflict of Interest

Television: The "Soul Train" producer says King World pulls from same ad pool for BET.

November 07, 2001|SALLIE HOFMEISTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Legendary television producer Don Cornelius claims that conflicts of interest arising from the vertical integration of the media business is threatening to destroy his 30-year-old "Soul Train" franchise.

Symbolic of the escalating tensions between independent producers and the media giants that control both programming and distribution, Cornelius claims that Viacom Inc.'s King World Productions unit pressured him to cancel two "Soul Train" television specials after failing to find advertisers for the shows.

Cornelius wants to sever a long-term contract that gives King World exclusive rights to sell time on his syndicated programs, which include "Soul Train," the longest-running weekly syndicated series.

King World said it has a binding contract with Cornelius and intends to honor it. Cornelius said there are five years left.

In letters to top King World and Viacom executives over the last two months, Cornelius says King World has not lived up to the bargain and has conflicts of interest. Since Cornelius hired the syndication giant four years ago, King World was bought by CBS, which in turn was acquired by Viacom. This year, Viacom bought Black Entertainment Television, which Cornelius considers his main competitor.

In a September letter to King World President Steven Hirsch, Cornelius wrote, "We are also experiencing extreme dismay and disappointment over the fact that, among our other worries, your company is now a common sibling with BET, which happens to be one of our very largest competitors with respect to the niche-market advertising dollar pool."

Cornelius says as the advertising pool shrinks, King World may be inclined to steer advertisers interested in black programming to its sister companies.

This is the second time in three months Cornelius has challenged the business practices of a Viacom entity. In August, he wrote a letter to the Justice Department accusing Viacom's MTV cable channel of violating antitrust laws by restricting artists who perform on its "Video Music Awards" from appearing on other awards programs.

Cornelius is not the only independent producer to have problems dealing with consolidation in the media business.

A host of independents have sold out over the last five years, frustrated by their inability to compete for talent, programming, advertisers or air time. With the rise of these giants has come a plethora of lawsuits brought by actors and producers who claim they have been short-changed as a result of self-dealing, as television rights have been allegedly sold at sweetheart prices by one arm of a company to another.

This time, Cornelius claims that King World breached its contract by failing to sell advertising for two specials, the "Soul Train 30th Anniversary Special" that aired this summer and the upcoming "Soul Train Christmas StarFest."

Cornelius said in both cases, King World executives urged him to cancel the shows because of a lack of advertiser interest. He said the anniversary special aired in June after he and members of his Los Angeles-based Don Cornelius Productions Inc., sold the ad time.

Cornelius contends that one reason King World may be having difficulty selling the shows is that its sales reps lack experience in the black American market. He said he has been unwilling to cancel shows because stations are counting on them.

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