ABC + CNN = Shotgun Wedding


Two media giants — The Walt Disney Co. and AOL Time Warner Inc. — are talking about merging their respective news operations, ABC News and Cable News Network.

And that's a very scary idea for anyone in the media business who's watched more than 100,000 jobs disappear over the last two years.

For me, this is yet another frightening wake-up call to the fact that media consolidation does not work. We're seeing two of the largest media companies embarrassingly turn to one another for help on the financial front.

When Disney acquired Capital Cities/ABC Inc. in 1996, the arrangement was hailed as the perfect marriage. Disney, a strong entertainment company, would be wedded to CapCities/ABC, a company with deep roots and a powerful distribution network for Disney's stable of shows. We soon learned they had — and still have — a host of unresolved problems.

Ditto for AOL TW — the product of 2000's America Online Inc.-Time Warner Inc. merger, a marriage lauded when it was made as the perfect union of old and new media. What's ensued since is the classic clash of corporate cultures. Today, that merged entity could be on the brink of divorce.

Now, there's this alarming new talk about merging the news operations of the ABC Television Network with CNN. It could be truly great — if the companies were talking about expanding their existing news operations in order to provide superior coverage in a very troubling world, where significant and often-terrifying news breaks every five minutes.

That could mean that even noncable households would have known when the Beltway snipers were caught within a minute. But they didn't even know police were closing in on the suspects last Wednesday evening — all of the broadcast networks were running their usual primetime fare.

But cable news channels were all over the fast-breaking story, going commercial free for the duration of the evening.

The story mushroomed, with cable-news cameras flinging viewers from the Beltway to Tacoma, Wash., and then to Montgomery, Ala. The cable news outlets were on top of their game — a contest in which the broadcast networks simply abdicated.

A day earlier, in my Washington, D.C., hotel room — the day that the sniper struck for the 13th time — I found it disappointing that at 10:30 a.m., every local TV station had said the bus driver — who was shot at 5:45 a.m. — remained in critical condition.

Flipping to CNN, I heard that the victim had been pronounced dead. How did CNN get that while every local TV station missed it, even though they were also running with non-stop coverage?

I don't know. But what is even more unfathomable is the logic of marrying CNN and ABC News. Let's look at what should have been the model marriage of a broadcast news organization and a cable network — NBC's launch of MSNBC in 1996.

Back then NBC, with the financial backing of Microsoft Corp., announced MSNBC's creation with great fanfare. The pairing should have been unbeatable.

NBC already had a strong network-news presence and a group of owned-and-operated TV stations — in other words, a lot of talent with which to cover and conquer the world. It had great cable distribution, plus a Microsoft-backed Web site for cross-promotion.

Instead, MSNBC is now dead last in the cable-news race. The sum did not turn out to be greater than the parts. It seldom does.

And it probably won't happen with whatever ABC and CNN try to do as a team. The logistics are just too daunting. If the goal is just to save a nickel, that merger is truly doomed.