Changing Channels; Disney party showcases synergy

SYNERGY HAS LONG BEEN of the most over-used terms in the entertainment industry, a sort of high-falutin’ buzzword that means, in simple Schwarzenegger-type lingo, “Ve’re big, and ve vill use our size to crush you.”

Those attending Disney’s three-day media blitzkrieg in Orlando last weekend, however, witnessed an awesome display of synergy in its purest form, with various arms of the company all pumping into one huge orgy of promotion and hype.

Thousands of media representatives showed up at the weekend events, which included the Disney World opening of Splash Mountain, work-in-progress screenings of “Aladdin,” ground-breaking on the Television Hall of Fame Plaza, and press events by both Walt Disney corporate and Disney TV.

There were television reporters from places like Memphis, Tampa and Tallahassee shooting questions at Michael Eisner about EuroDisneyland and his status as a member of “the cultural elite”–reporters whose local viewers probably couldn’t care less about the answer to either question.

Nevertheless, all those reporters (and some of their bosses) were in Orlando, drawn by the lure of the many events, and as long as they were there they had to do something to justify the visit to their stations, or newspapers, or whatever.

The whole weekend underscored how cleverly a company like Disney can use its multiple operations to feed other areas. That’s why competitors such as Warner Bros., Paramount, Universal and Sony have at least flirted with their own ventures to be equally diverse, from Universal Studios to Sonyland to Six Flags.

By the same token, it also demonstrated why the entertainment industry has gradually concentrated into a handful of major players and why further consolidation, sans limiting regulation, is almost inevitable, leaving smaller companies with a choice: be on the inside looking out, or on the outside looking in.

One animated hit, Disney executives point out, feeds revenue into different arms of the company like a spider web, with strands extending into feature films , television, merchandising, licensing, homevideo, retail stores, costumed characters for theme parks, etc.

During the weekend, Disney exploited that diversity with a vengeance, as well as its status as one of the few legitimate brand names in the entertainment industry.

Granted, that emphasis on synergy can reach a teeth-gnashing saturation point , such as referring to all employees as “cast members,” which brought to mind a joke about the circus janitor who didn’t want to leave because it would mean getting out of show business. “Oh cast member, I dropped my Mickey fudgicle, can you sweep it up?”

OTHERS MIGHT GET A LITTLE QUEASY about reports that senior managers must each spend a day at the theme parks as a costumed character–actually a brilliant means of evoking a unity of feeling among employees as well as fun for outsiders , who can try and guess which character (Goofy? Chip?) best fits which exec.

Still, in the larger scheme of things, all of this builds toward synergy in the term’s most important sense as those in showbiz use it: that the various parts, taken together, create a much bigger whole and as such enjoy advantages within each individual area.

If a station manager wants to take his kids to Orlando, for example, that can help the public relations wing generate news coverage, or the syndication operation clear a show, or the marketing folks in seeking a movie tie-in.

Even cab drivers in Orlando talk with reverence about the Disney marketing machine, from the hardball they play with vendors to the savvy with which they’ve manipulated local officials. There’s admiration, if not necessarily fondness, in most of their words.

Most of all, Disney’s strategy and that of the other studios reflects the fact that the big will keep getting bigger because it makes sense for them to do so–one reason why rumors about eventual network-studio mergers won’t go away.

What does that leave for the little guy? For those determined to remain independent, the answer, with apologies to Mickey, is to say a silent prayer and try to build a better mousetrap.

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: If your first reaction to the scheduling of the presidential debates was, “My God, that will kill our (fill in the blank) lead-in!,” you’re ready for a brief vacation from the world of network television.

Actually, the whole process of watching the debate scheduling–with the candidates and networks both tap-dancing around how to air the debates without interrupting events like the World Series and “Monday Night Football”–needs some serious work.

Debates normally aired at 9 p.m. ET, so viewers on the West Coast could see them as close to prime time as possible, just as has been done by ABC with football over the years.

Instead, two and possibly three of the debates will air at 7 p.m. Eastern, or 4 p.m. locally, preempting local news or starting immediately after afternoon football on Sunday, raising the amusing scenario of another “Heidi” debacle if the game goes into overtime.

Of course, preempting the early newscasts in Los Angeles isn’t such a bad idea based on their content. Still, with all the hot air surrounding the campaign, one has to wonder if anyone will notice the difference.

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