Games nets play obscure hunt for bigger prize

Vertical integration is the new mantra for corporate-owned webs seeking synergy

AS ENJOYABLE AS IT IS to watch the major networks publicly bitch-slap each other in front of the assembled press corps, I can’t help but think that TV’s latest rhubarb is rooted in the past, obscuring the more interesting, multifaceted and forward-looking fracas that’s brewing right in front of us.

Goaded by NBC Universal TV Group chief Jeff Zucker’s savvy preemptive strike, TV critics held hostage at the Century Plaza Hotel — since, what, April? — have spent the last few weeks focusing on the dubious ethics of Fox reality czar Mike Darnell, whose less-endearing antics include allegedly funneling ideas he’s pitched to producer buddies and rushing copycats on to torpedo competing shows.

Bare-knuckled as those Darnellian tactics are, they see the world through a dated prism — one hearkening back to the day, ironically enough, before Fox and cable blossomed. Back then, networks tussled only with each other, which meant that undermining NBC’s boxing show might theoretically boost Fox’s pugilistic pretender.

Flash-forward to today, when the average viewer receives 100 channels and regularly watches at least 15 of them. Suddenly, deflecting audiences from NBC’s “The Contender” has as much chance of steering them toward ESPN, TNT or even their Xbox as Fox or ABC. In other words, while some traditional rules of the scheduling derby apply, looking at the menu as strictly a four- or even six-network pie ignores the buffet that’s readily available.

THE STAKES AND GAMESMANSHIP, rather, are being played out on a much larger (and somewhat disquieting) stage — one that recently elevated Viacom co-president Leslie Moonves alluded to while addressing the critics Sunday, when he spoke about the joys of “maximizing vertical integration.”

At first I had to double-check my notes, having abbreviated that corporate tongue twister as “MVI,” which left me wondering how an 11th century Roman numeral landed in the discussion. A Google search revealed that 1006 is the year the brightest supernova ever appeared in the constellation of Lupus, but Moonves has his eye on a more terrestrial prize.

What he described isn’t a world where Fox and NBC scrap for viewers but where News Corp. and General Electric joust on a hundred different fronts and cooperate on a dozen others. NBC, after all, arrived at the critics’ confab with “Universal” affixed to its name and highlighted the blessings of synergy by ferrying reporters to Universal Studios, where I sampled the “Revenge of the Mummy” ride and screamed like a young girl.

In this environment, the arsenal in the hands of execs like Zucker, who controls cable, and Moonves, who controls pretty much everything but, goes well beyond what’s on Thursdays at 9. The vertical integration Moonves hopes to maximize includes CBS, UPN, 183 radio stations, a national network of billboards, production, distribution — and that’s just his portion of Sumner Redstone’s sandbox. Each unit has its own profit margins to meet, but so long as “MVI” is the governing formula, they’re all tools in pursuit of a greater goal.

ADMITTEDLY, thus far no one in showbiz has proved especially adept at demonstrating that two plus two can really equal five. Take Disney, which is still trying to figure out how to maximize its relationship with ABC, and vice versa, nearly a decade into it.

Nevertheless, the fact that studios have labored to get everyone on the same synergistic page and tend to operate like squabbling fiefdoms hasn’t dissuaded anyone from wanting to master the new math of conglomeration. Indeed, there appears to be a heightened sense of urgency to crack the code, from News Corp.’s DirecTV acquisition to the GE-mandated “integration meetings” that had NBC and Universal execs tearing their hair out.

The race is fueled by the assumption that whichever titan unlocks the key first will take a giant step or two ahead of the competition. In the meantime, decisions will increasingly be made to fulfill some bigger purpose, whether that entails turning networks into near-exclusive showcases for sister production wings or having news divisions shill for brother entertainment arms.

At times, of course, maximizing vertical integration appears to be more a matter of perception than reality. Still, as the TV Critics Assn. learned when their leadership thoughtlessly approved a plan to hit up networks for ads in a commemorative program, in media, perception is frequently half the battle.

By the way, based on my limited understanding of astronomy, that aforementioned supernova generated plenty of light as well as heat, which — however entertaining and distracting the networks’ finger-pointing has been — is more than can be said for the latest press tour.

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