TV ‘Specials’: Commercials or Entertainment? : Television: This month programs about theme parks or movies air with little or no indication of their nature. Some network executives downplay the promotional aspects, calling the shows good programming.

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Summertime . . . and the hyping is easy.

At least it seems so for several movie studios and theme parks, which are producing a spate of network television specials promoting their product. Viewers looking for a little summer magic in their TV fare may find themselves continually confronted with summer merchandising.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. June 17, 1994 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 17, 1994 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 12 Column 3 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
NBC disclaimer-- A story in Wednesday’s Calendar said that there was no disclaimer on an NBC January special, “Treasure Island: The Adventures Continues,” to indicate that the program was a paid advertisement for the Treasure Island resort in Las Vegas. But NBC officials said there was a label at the end of the special that noted that the show had been paid for by the resort’s owners.

This month alone, five “specials” promoting theme parks and summer movies are airing on ABC, CBS and NBC, with little or no indication of their promotional nature:

* ABC tonight will broadcast “The Lion King: A Musical Journey,” a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the music in the Walt Disney Pictures animated feature “The Lion King,” which opens today in Los Angeles and New York. The special, which features singer-songwriter Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice, was produced in association with Disney Television.


* On June 22, CBS will show “Wyatt Earp: Walk With a Legend.” The network’s press release says the special “pays tribute to epic Western movies, with particular emphasis given to the making of the upcoming theatrical release ‘Wyatt Earp’ and an interview with its star, Kevin Costner.” The program is produced by Warner Bros., the studio that made “Wyatt Earp.”

* NBC on June 24 will present “Universal Studios Summer Blast,” a special filmed at Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal Studios Florida, which is being touted as “a celebration and preview” of summer movies, concerts and “the big events of the season.” The special features artists, musical groups and film stars, some of whom are associated with Universal films. The program will also air several times during the next few weeks on cable channels.

* Last week, CBS aired “A Busch Gardens/Sea World Summer Celebration,” an entertainment program produced for Anheuser-Busch Theme Parks and shot at its parks in California, Texas and Florida.

* On June 1, CBS broadcast “Movie News Hot Summer Sneak Preview,” a production of Buena Vista Pictures, a division of Disney. The show promised exclusive interviews and footage from “four of this summer’s hottest feature films,” and all four turned out to have been made by Disney.

Behind-the-scenes specials about major movies and programs set at tourist attractions such as Disney World are nothing new. But this month’s torrent of such fare on the networks has raised questions about their appropriateness.

“There’s long been a blurring of distinctions between programming and advertising, and these kinds of specials blur the line even further,” said Michael Jacobson, head of the Washington-based Center for the Study of Commercialism, which studies and targets tie-ins between the mass media and manufacturers.


“What these specials are is a subtle form of advertising,” Jacobson said. “It’s powerful because we’re not told it’s advertising. There’s no pitchman, no ordering opportunities. But viewers should know that what they’re watching is basically an infomercial, and these specials are an extension of the tawdriest kind of commercialism wrapped up in electronic packaging.”

He said he plans to ask the Federal Communications Commission to investigate the specials to determine if labeling should be required on future programs of this nature.

Network executives and producers of some of the programs denied that they were advertising, and argued that the entertainment value far outweighed the promotional aspects.

“The fact is, these are good programs that will attract an audience,” said Steve Warner, senior vice president for program planning at CBS. “There’s a huge amount of interest in these kinds of programs. People love seeing how these movies are made. And we purchase programs like these that will get significant ratings.”

Another network official who asked not to be identified said, “Yes, we may take a little heat for putting on programs like this. But the bottom line is, if the quality of the show is good, it’s better to put on something like this than a repeat.”

Marsha Diamond, an attorney for the FCC, said it was uncertain whether any of the specials violate federal guidelines on the labeling of advertisements. “It’s a rather unwieldy area, because it involves looking at a program as far as its intent, and that might encompass some shows that have entertainment value,” she said.


Jacobson said some of the programming was so blatantly promotional that its intent was unquestionable. “The whole thing is packaged as an ad. The networks are degrading themselves by putting on these kinds of infomercials,” he said.

The issue may come down to whether the network time was purchased by the producers, Diamond said. That would require the networks to reveal to viewers that the time was paid for--although NBC did not follow that provision earlier this year when it aired an hourlong special, “Treasure Island: The Adventures Begins,” about a boy visiting the Treasure Island resort in Las Vegas. Mirage Resorts, which owns Treasure Island, paid NBC $1.7 million for the hour. Diamond said she was unaware of any action pending against NBC.

CBS said it bought Disney’s “Movie News Hot Summer Sneak Preview,” Warner Bros.’ “Wyatt Earp: Walk With a Legend” and Anheuser-Busch’s “A Busch Gardens/Sea World Summer Celebration.” ABC said “The Lion King: A Musical Journey” will carry a disclaimer at the end noting that the program was paid for by the Walt Disney Co. NBC said it will also acknowledge that Universal paid for the time to run “Summer Blast.”

Molly Miles, senior vice president for features and television development at Universal Studios Hollywood and Florida, said that in addition to buying time for “Summer Blast” on NBC, the studio is purchasing time to run it on several cable outlets, including the USA Network and the Family Channel.

Miles said the special goes far beyond the scope of an advertisement.

“This is a solid, bicoastal special that previews everything that is hot about the summer,” she said. “There’ve always been specials taped at Disneyland and Sea World, but this goes way beyond the scope of a theme park special.”

Miles said the program has segments about the World Cup, about concerts by artists such as Phil Collins, and about several actors, including some who are not featured in Universal’s summer releases.


Arthur Smith, senior vice president of Dick Clark Productions, which produced the “Summer Blast” special, said, “This is a big party. Universal came to us and said, ‘We want to put on the biggest party of the summer.’ Some of the acts are with Universal, some aren’t. We just wanted to put on a great show, and the promotional aspect is secondary.”