Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The idiot box and the birdcage liner, Part 1: Death of a Newspaper?

As the country heats up on the approach to the official start of summer a week from tomorrow, things are heating up in the television and newspaper business.

Initially, I was going to do a multi-party story, with the likes of Dan Rather and Rupert Murdoch dominating the behind-the-scenes broadcast news as of late. But that would make for one helluva long article, so just like Guns n' Roses split "Use Your Illusion" into two albums, just like Quentin Tarantino split "Kill Bill" in two and just like his recent effort "Grindhouse" crapped out at the box office because he didn't and it was just too damned long (ever sit nonstop through a three-and-a-half-hour movie after downing a 64 oz. Pepsi from the snack counter?), this article will likewise be chopped up. Think of it as doubling your pleasure. Hang tight, the Dan Rather one is coming soon.

First things first. The big newspaper industry story as of late has been Murdoch's aggressive bid for Dow Jones, owner of the Wall Street Journal, among other papers and publications. Murdoch made an unsolicited offer of $5 billion dollars for the company, hoping to tie their business media prowess with the planned "FOX Business Channel" that will take to the airwaves later this year. Since News Corp.'s announcement, others have jumped into the pursuit of Dow Jones, including the owner of the Philadelphia newspapers and reportedly, even NBC.

Granted, the Wall Street Journal seems, on the surface, to be a conservative rag, which would appear to fit right in with Murdoch's other U.S. newspaper properties. But the neocon agit-prop is usually confined to the editorial pages (which seems to often be written at the high school level). The rest of the paper is top-notch, with some very strong in-depth reporting on all kinds of news stories. And the 35-member, three generation Bancroft family has done a remarkable job of keeping up these high standards (save for "Opinion Journal") in an era when most newspapers are scaling down and relying increasingly on wire reports and fewer local features. Overall, it's a decent conservative rag, with groudbreaking stories on the AIDS epidemic, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, 1980s insider trading scandals and the Enron fiasco, among others. Too bad it's a bit bogged down by the aforementioned opinion pages.

Will a News Corp-controlled WSJ resemble screaming tabloids like the New York Post or trashy London rags like The Sun or News Of The World? Granted, it likely won't go that far. But this could signal the end of the Wall Street Journal's noted independence and unique style as it becomes a part of a megacorporation known for heavy consolidation. The bland, gray lady could get even blander, minus the substance and deep reporting. Dow Jones is much, much smaller in comparison, and has given its media properties much more leeway than the other mega media empires it competes with.

Now, some of the Bancrofts are a bit wary. They don't much care for the Post or FOX News Channel, which they feel are too politically slanted and are overly obsessed with celebrity gossip and crime stories. They fear what could become of their crown jewel. Some are starting to warm up to Murdoch, but with very strict stipulations. News Corp promises status quo at the Journal, but we've all heard that before, right?

In another sign that Murdoch is dead serious about his pursuit of Dow Jones is today's announcement by News Corp that they are selling off nine of their TV stations, all of which carry the FOX Network (the "American Idol" one, not the "American Idiot" one). These stations are in some pretty big markets, such as Denver, Cleveland, Milwaukee and St. Louis. What's notable is that these are also stand-alone FOX affiliates, meaning that they don't have sister UHF stations airing MyNetworkTV, a young, upstart sister network that nobody watches. Why they opted not to sell those stations is unknown, since the stuff on MyTV is even worse than any of the shit FOX ever put on the air in their early days. Yes, worse than "The Chevy Chase Show."

FOX doesn't have much to lose in selling these stations. It's a given that whoever buys them (and no, FOX isn't stupid enough to sell these to another network and get their stuff yanked off the air) will keep the FOX affiliation. In the industry, it's a well-known fact that station owners drool over being a FOX affiliate. Let's face it, FOX stations only have to clear 2-3 hours for network programming a day (outside of sports), as compared to 8-9 hours daily that ABC, CBS and NBC stations have to give up. That means much more local ad time the stations can sell (in addition to a shitload of courtroom shows). Throw in NFL games and "American Idol" and why would any station, from a business standpoint, give that up? So they're relatively safe there. And FOX does mandate some pretty hefty standards for their affiliates, so it's almost like they're company-owned. For viewers in affected markets, the main difference is a lack of shows that FOX forces on their owned-and-operated stations (like "Geraldo at Large") or those ugly ass logos those stations have been getting lately (made to resemble the "FOX Noise Channel" logo - shudder). Consider yourselves lucky.

Now, keep in mind, Murdoch rarely sells anything. And when he does, it's usually due to federal regulations in whatever country they own properties or in cases when their buying sprees rack up too much debt (i.e. the FOX Network startup). News Corp has succeeded partly due to shrewd business moves (the broadcast network was a massive success), but mostly due to the obscene amount of money thrown around. But this sale of assets means that News Corp is hell-bent on acquiring Dow Jones, whatever it takes. And that's quite scary. We shall see what happens.


Anonymous said...

Murdoch also owns The Times of London and The Sunday Times. He did not turn them into The Sun. He knows how to identify a target market and how to reach a target market. He knows what the Journal is and what he would be buying.

The Journal's editorial page reflects it's readership: Wall Street-Rockefeller-Republicans.

The Post reflects it's readership: Archie Bunker's neighbors.

New York had a long history of tabloid and yellow journalism before Murdoch ever showed up. He saw the remaining tabloid, the Daily News, had lost it's edge and and it's core market. He saw an opening, as he did with other tabloids in Australia and Britain.

It seems somewhat elitist and condescending to sniff a tabloids and by extension, those who read them (the people liberals profess to care about and champion).

ltr said...

I realize that you're keen on nitpicking everything I write here, and if that's what you live for, so be it. And I know that you like to paint people into convenient little corners. Why, I have no idea.

Tawdry tabloids do have their place in society. People read them, so there's obviously a market. Hell, I read the Chicago Sun-Times occasionally (though it's very tame compared to Murdoch's offerings). And I know that they're most noteworthy for their extensive sports coverage, among other things.

Not that I really care to spend my time defending what I write to the likes of you, but I only mentioned the tabloids twice in the article. I stated that it would be far-fetched that the WSJ would go down that road. I also cited the NY Times, which claimed that some of the Bancrofts don't much care for The Post or the news channel. Again, you're reading more into this stuff than is actually there, though I know that you have an obsession over ripping apart everything I write. Seems you've become my own Rupert Pupkin.

By the way, I've read Opinion Journal on many an occasion. They are most certainly not appealing to "Rockefeller (read: moderate) Republicans." While the rest of the paper reads that way, the editorial pages seems to cater more to "Limbaugh Republicans" these days.

Incidentally, I thought this article would attract scorn in other ways, with accusations of me being rather soft on Murdoch. The truth is that I admire him as a businessman. He's saavy and gutsy, and not afraid to overpay for properties that he knows will become megasuccessful (like overpaying by half a billion dollars for the old John Kluge/Metromedia TV stations that made up the core of the FOX network - he got his money's worth). I think his 'news' channel is crap, but it serves a niche and seems to do well. So be it, and I actually welcome its existence. In fact, I'd fight for it, as I'm a big proponent of free expression. Though I do reserve the right to poke fun at it (and I do).

Incidentally, I finished reading the book "Outfoxed" recently, which is about the start of the FOX network. Murdoch didn't come up with the idea - Barry Diller had been trying to get a fourth network off the ground for years, most previously at Paramount, where all that came of it was what became the first "Star Trek" movie. Diller got Kluge and Murdoch in the same room, and while the boss at Paramount was scared of the idea, Murdoch jumped at it. Highly recommended reading.

Anonymous said...

Thanks. I just went to the library website and put a hold on "Outfoxed."

I didn't intend to nit-pick. I did want to point out that Murdoch does produce more/other than tabloids.

I agree Murdoch is savvy. I find myself wondering what would happen if somebody like Murdoch wanted to launch a liberal radio or TV operation, and what the end result would be like.

Please don't be offended when I debate or disagree. The wing-nuts have pretty much taken over Radio-Info and there's no other place for an open discussion of liberal talk and related issues. By allowing it here, you provide a real service to anybody who cares about diversity of opinion in talk radio...and you might get some extra hits, as well.

Don't forget, Rupert idolized talk show host Jerry Langford. Me, I've always had a "thing" for Sandra Bernhard.

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