Media investors can’t buy a better image

NOT TO SOUND like a conspiracy nut, but is anyone else wary of private equity firms swooping in to acquire beleaguered media companies, given that shadowy corporate interests have come to represent such popular villains in movies and TV?

Look no further than the latest addition to the James Bond series, “Casino Royale,” where the bad guy sets considerable mayhem in motion not out of a desire to rule the world but rather to cash in by shorting stocks. He follows the power-mad media baron played by Jonathan Pryce in the 1997 Bond adventure “Tomorrow Never Dies,” who attempts to trigger World War III to augment his satellite-TV empire.

Somehow, it’s not quite the Cold War and threat of nuclear annihilation as stakes go.

Then again, greedy moguls have become a favorite whipping boy in movies and TV, reflecting both nagging distrust of big money and the need to replace the dated jingoistic heavies (Soviets! Chinese! The original WWII Axis of Evil, not the new one!) of years gone by.

The ’70s “Superman” series starring Christopher Reeve helped get this ball rolling, transforming the Man of Steel’s nemesis, Lex Luthor, into a twisted real-estate tycoon plotting to drop California into the ocean to increase the value of his landlocked property — Donald Trump, if you will, albeit with blatantly bogus hair and more misanthropic tendencies.

More recent examples include the corporate cartels puppet-mastering the government in the Fox programs “Prison Break” and “24,” as well as the jarring transformation of “The Manchurian Candidate” remake, where the brain-manipulating forces evolved from being sneaky Communists into a global conglomerate.

AS A PRACTICAL MATTER, well-heeled corporate overseers are a low-risk target, inasmuch as they’re unlikely to take offense or protest outside studios, which is no doubt a major factor in their becoming such popular foils. What minimal outcry there has been can be seen in whining by the conservative Media Research Center’s Business & Media Institute, which complains that movies depict businessmen overwhelmingly “as either criminals or simply unethical” and became positively apoplectic over films like “Syriana” and “The Constant Gardener,” where conglomerates ruthlessly put profit ahead of principle.

The irony is that this disdain for corporations gained momentum as studios and networks were absorbed into larger and larger companies, a sign not only of suspicion toward those institutions but a well-established sense of perversity among media pros, who invariably savor biting the hands that feed them.

The negative portrayals of big business are also emblematic of boorish behavior by some of these entities, which explains why News Corp.’s about-face this week — canceling its planned O.J. Simpson book and related Fox special — took so many by surprise: For quite awhile now, the question “Have you no shame?” in media circles has simply been a rhetorical one.

BEING HELD in such low esteem, however, doesn’t appear to be dissuading equity firms and hedge funds from pouring billions into the entertainment sector. Recent deals include the buyout of Spanish-language Univision and radio behemoth Clear Channel, as well as private bids for Tribune Co. Such investors continue to exhibit a healthy appetite for the movie business, too, despite having sand kicked in their face publicity-wise and, more significantly, frequent demonstrations of the adage “A fool and his money are soon parted,” with many funds taking a financial bath.

When the smoke ultimately clears, perhaps the private equity infusion will be good news for media companies, with investors aspiring to do nothing more than turn a profit and, not incidentally, rub elbows with a few stars — always an intangible part of this equation. And who knows, rescued from Wall Street’s unyielding demands, maybe creative types and newshounds will come to look more kindly upon these faceless financiers.

That’s an enticing scenario, but probably one that smacks of wishful thinking on both sides. Because just as throwing a few bucks into the media mix won’t generate more favorable press or better treatment within movies for the money men, history shows that once someone gets their hooks into Hollywood and vice versa, almost inevitably, what the really want to do is direct.

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