NBC News' broadcast of a stripped-down Golden Globe Awards on Sunday raises questions about the heavy influence of the entertainment division on its sister news organization, industry veterans said.
Media experts said that putting what was originally an entertainment show under the auspices of NBC News, whose producers would pen the script, undermines the credibility of the news division.
"It's pretty clear there isn't much of a firewall between news and sales anymore, but my goodness, you don't want to bulldoze it," said Deborah Potter, a former CBS and CNN correspondent who runs NewsLab, a non-profit journalism training center in Washington.
NBC tapped its news division Monday to anchor an exclusive news conference announcing the Golden Globe winners after threats of a picket by the striking Writers Guild of America forced the cancellation of the ceremony.
Potter questioned why the Globes merited an hour of live news coverage in prime time while Tuesday's New Hampshire presidential primaries merited only brief updates.
"The obvious reason is that it's about money, not news," she said. "To essentially sell out your coverage so the owner of your news division can retain some money is obviously problematic. It raises a lot of questions about what else might be for sale."
NBC News spokeswoman Allison Gollust said the division was covering the Globes because of its news value.
"Given all the attention that has been focused on this event and related industry issues, it is clearly worthy of our coverage," she said. Other network executives declined to comment.
By turning the awards announcement into a news event, NBC was able to skirt the $6 million license fee that would normally have been paid to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which hands out the awards. And by holding the event under the umbrella of the news division -- whose employees do not work under the Writers Guild contract that is under dispute -- the network hopes to avoid a picket line that could keep stars from attending. (Guild officials said they might picket the conference.)
In the last few years, the Globes ceremony has generated between $10 million and $15 million in profit for NBC.
Network executives criticized the guild's vow to picket. "It feels like the nerdiest, ugliest, meanest kids in the high school are trying to cancel the prom, but NBC wants to try and keep that prom alive," NBC entertainment chief Ben Silverman told radio host Ryan Seacrest on Monday.
The decision to hand the event off to news was made at the highest levels of NBC Universal, in discussions led by Chief Executive Jeff Zucker, according to people familiar with the talks.
To maintain its exclusivity and in hopes of generating enough viewership to recoup some ad revenue from the program, the network had planned to bar competing television outlets from the event. Executives said Wednesday that rival networks would be allowed in, but would not to be able to air the announcements live. But on Friday, the Hollywood Press Association announced there would be no restrictions on media outlets, enabling rival networks to air the winners live.
NBC is planning to package the news conference with a two-hour "Dateline NBC" hosted by Matt Lauer featuring interviews with Globes nominees. The "Dateline" program originally was scheduled to air Saturday.
Before the Friday announcement, television news veterans said NBC News' role as exclusive broadcaster of the Globes news conference suggested that the news division was being forced to cover the event at the behest of its corporate parent.
"It's not that it has no news value; it's that nobody believes the news division made the decision to carry it," said one former top NBC producer who did not want to be named. "It's serving the entertainment division's purpose, not the news division's purpose. This is the way principles get chipped away, bit by bit."
Some news staffers said NBC News' coverage of the Golden Globes was just another example of the promotion news divisions regularly give their companies' entertainment programs.
"It's a relatively small step from MSNBC and 'Dateline' doing Golden Globes specials as if it was some kind of documentary event to covering a news conference in place of an awards show," said former "Dateline" correspondent John Hockenberry, who recently wrote a piece critical of NBC's practices in MIT's Technology Review.
"News divisions have to justify their existence with a certain amount of sales and promotion," he said. "It's not really an erosion game anymore. I think everyone assumes it's all marketing."