STUDIOS HAVE GONE back and forth regarding the blessings of synergy, from second-guessing the wisdom of the Viacom-CBS split to pressure on Time Warner and Tribune to shed assets once surmised to yield inflated benefits when exercised in concert.While I still lean in the “bigger always helps” direction, November highlighted the inherent dangers when sister divisions interact, which can lead to questionable judgment at best and stupidity and arrogance at worst. No one has fully detailed how News Corp. found itself with a pile of O.J. Simpson books earmarked for the recycle bin alongside an aborted Fox primetime special, but there’s little doubt the misguided project gained momentum because it was birthed via cooperation between corporate siblings HarperCollins’ ReganBooks and the Fox network. Disney, meanwhile, delivered its own endorsement for not staying within the family by airing a Thanksgiving edition of ABC’s newsmag “Primetime,” subtitled “Lost Kingdom: Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto,” which amounted to a glorified electronic press kit for the studio’s upcoming movie. For all the talk about separation of church and state, the “Primetime” spec sure smelled like an infomercial, complete with a fawning Gibson interview, set visit and completely uncritical look at the historical underpinnings (and veiled contemporary references) within the film. Hosted by Diane Sawyer and John Quinones, the telecast rode the coattails of the ABC hit “Grey’s Anatomy,” spraying a foul stench over Sawyer’s earlier exclusive with Gibson on “Good Morning America” — the implication being her initial access to the star was a quid pro quo for the slurp-fest to come. ABC did identify the network and studio’s shared parentage at the conclusion of the 50-minute broadcast, but by then the damage had been done and promotional value extracted, leaving a bitter post-turkey aftertaste behind. And while ABC News can argue that the movie merited such lavish attention coming off Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” that’s more than a bit of a reach given the arcane subject matter. To be fair, ABC’s wet kiss to “Apocalypto” is considerably less sordid than Fox’s “D’oh!” moment with the live-action Simpson, but for skeptical media watchers the effect is similar — a sense that editorial standards break down when a grander mission is being served. Walt Disney once said, “A man should never neglect his family for business,” but in hindsight, ol’ Walt had it lucky: He operated in simpler times than today’s media titans, which often can’t seem to tell where the “family” stops and the business begins. A TALE OF TWO SCANDALS: Beyond synergy, the handling of Gibson’s image woes represents a PR case study of Scandal Mitigation 101, especially when compared with Michael Richards’ clumsy attempts to defuse his racial tirade by appearing, of all places, on “Late Show With David Letterman.” Jerry Seinfeld might win good-guy points for seeking to assist his buddy by orchestrating the Letterman spot, but it reflected a tremendous lack of sophistication regarding modern media — assuming, for starters, that everyone in the studio audience would be familiar with a brouhaha driven largely by the Internet and cable news. The result? Unintentional giggles from the crowd that prompted Seinfeld to admonish them, and a muddled message from Richards, who wondered aloud (correctly) if he was apologizing in the proper venue and offered no excuse for his outburst. That was followed by an equally ill-advised radio chat with Jesse Jackson, who leveraged the occasion to chide the befuddled comic for all of TV’s perceived ills. Compare that with Gibson, who used the first Sawyer interview to get well ahead of the movie’s release and wisely invoked a third-party villain (damn you, Tequila!) to explain his boorish behavior. However unconvincing that might be, tackling the question head-on allowed his minders to do the customary “We talked about that, now we’re moving on” dance, sparing them from being forced to repeatedly address the controversy. Granted, Richards had the misfortune to leave a video trail that kept the story alive, but he’d be wise to thumb through Gibson’s confession playbook — understanding that knowing when and where to launch an image-reclamation tour is almost as important as what you say. And if that doesn’t work, try rehab.
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