Networks try a little sibling revelry

THE COMMENT DIDN’T GENERATE much attention at the time, but Fox Entertainment prexy Peter Liguori earned the rare “Maybe That’s Too Honest” award, executive division, when asked at last month’s TV critics tour if he’d rather see viewers that Fox doesn’t capture land at a sister network such as FX.

“We do have an attitude that if somebody’s going to eat our young, it ought to be us,” he said.

Television is eating its young, slicing them up into tiny bite-sized pieces. What’s emerging, in fact, is a more complicated, team-sport approach to programming that appears to pursue the greater glory of the conglomerate in a manner that almost mirrors the Japanese concept of keiretsu, where instead of operating as independent entities, channels with interlocking relationships further a larger corporate agenda.

None of this is entirely new, and there have been innumerable fits and starts on the road to synergistic nirvana. Still, NBC’s acquisition of Universal, CBS’ absorption of UPN, Fox’s cable expansion and Disney’s cozy pairing of ABC and ESPN point to an era in which the flagship network leads the orchestrated attack to amass audiences and, with any luck, wound competitors.

CBS recently gave UPN’s “Veronica Mars” a showcase run on the main Eye network and then proudly reported that more than 10 million viewers had sampled the series for the first time. UPN, meanwhile, has garnered good buzz with its new comedy “Everybody Hates Chris,” and if the netlet siphons away a few sitcom watchers from NBC’s “Joey” on Thursdays, hey, so much the better for its big brother.

NBC has aggressively sent projects flitting among various networks like ping pong, whether it was NBC previewing Sci Fi’s “Battlestar Galactica” series launch or repeating “Revelations” on virtually all its basic cable nets. This teamwork was highlighted by multiplexing of the Olympics and lowlighted by playing hot potato with this summer’s failed reality shows, at times threatening to transform Bravo into NBCB.

AS LIGUORI RIGHTLY SUGGESTED, managers have individual performance targets to meet, so what helps even members of the fraternal order is seldom their foremost priority. Certainly, there’s no shortage of instances in which synergy has flopped or run amok, and no amount of cooperation, willing or coerced, can compel viewers to buy into a bad product. In today’s era of choice, the customers are usually right, unless they insist on watching “In Aruba With Greta Van Susteren,” or whatever the hell they call it.

Nevertheless, the pain of a down year can be softened when audience and revenue losses at NBC, say, are partially offset by a conglom’s cable properties. Strictly from a market perspective, this is tantamount to owning a diversified portfolio to help smooth the roller-coaster ride of a hit-driven business.

“High-Flying February for NBC Universal Cable Group,” read the NBC press release after the February sweeps, when USA and Sci Fi shined and the Peacock net didn’t. It’s not a huge stretch to foresee disappointing results being hidden within such releases, obscuring a single channel’s lackluster ratings by touting how well “the networks of NBC” fared vs. the assembled nets of Viacom, Disney, News Corp. and Time Warner.

AGAINST THIS BACKDROP, Viacom’s decision to split the CBS and MTV groups is more perplexing, coming as it does when rivals are seeking to master deploying their arsenals for maximum effect, such as NBC’s multichannel roadblock of Universal’s “King Kong” trailer across nine NBC-owned networks in June. While it’s easy to comprehend stockholders lobbying to dissect Viacom or spin off Time Warner units to wring value from sluggish shares, shedding potentially useful assets risks being extremely short-sighted in this high-stakes game of corporate poker.

Larry Gelbart largely foreshadowed much of this in his 1997 HBO satire “Weapons of Mass Distraction,” in which feuding moguls bring diverse media holdings to bear in an effort to destroy each other. Along the way, the media titans inadvertently ruin the life of an Everyman, though the guy and his family are ultimately too transfixed by what’s on TV to grasp what’s happened.

Although somewhat exaggerated, the movie conveyed a timely warning for corporate card sharks as well as sedated consumers. Because given the tides of change clouding the future, anyone focusing too intently on today’s stock ticker may realize too late that he’s thrown away a winning hand.

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