The Dumbing Down of TV


Last week, another media giant was created when NBC completed its purchase of Vivendi Universal Entertainment. The new entity, NBC Universal, laid out its new organizational chart and massive plans for cross-promoting its many assets.

On paper, all of these media marriages look great, with breathless promises of leveraging assets, creating scale, paring costs and — in the end — the sum is supposed to be greater than the parts.

But to date, none of those mega-marriages look like anything like the promises contained in the oh-so-heady announcements. Hopefully, NBC has learned something, since it’s had the time to study the mistakes of other media titans, most notably AOL Time Warner Inc. and the others who’ve blundered their way through consolidation.

Not surprisingly, NBC Universal will eliminate some 500 jobs in redundant areas like affiliate marketing, ad sales and back-office business areas like accounting. Those jobs aren’t going offshore, they’re just going away. But that’s business.

What’s perhaps more creepy is the concept of fewer media voices and the end result: the dumbing down of television. Well before the NBC Universal agreement was signed, there were disturbing signals of what was to come, just from watching what’s still my morning staple — NBC’s once highly acclaimed Today, co-hosted by Katie Couric and Matt Lauer.

For months now, those two esteemed journalists have become mere flacks to promote NBC’s other shows. Neither anchor looks comfortable doing a most-awkward segue from the latest atrocity coming out of Iraq to inane segments about Donald Trump’s The Apprentice.

It didn’t stop with the Donald. Last week — as we get closer to an election, and with the world becoming a more volatile place — Today, in between segments of ever-gorier headlines coming out of Iraq, endlessly hyped the demise of Friends and Frasier, as both of those shows head off to another revenue stream called syndication.

My husband, who is off in another room listening to National Public Radio, asks me each day why I still watch the Today show, given what it has become. My answer is simple: I guess I want to see how low can they go. It’s like driving a car and rubbernecking at a bad accident on the other side of the road.

Instead, I tell him, it’s my job to see what is happening to television as consolidation continues unabated. What’s happening with Today is a textbook example of a company using the public airwaves, which it doesn’t pay for, to cross-promote its other business interests for the good of the corporate entity and no one else.

I’d love to be a fly on the wall at segment planning meetings to hear what Katie and Matt have to say about their new marching orders. But I’m not. So Multichannel News will dutifully report on who’s in and who’s out in yet another mega-merger, trying to help you, our readers, understand the lay of the new land.

My opinion aside, watch this new NBC Universal giant closely for its many ramifications on your business.