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The Trouble With Synergy: A Media Family Feud

“Synergy.” If you don’t spend hours wading through entertainment industry press releases, you may be relatively unfamiliar with the term, which has become as common in Hollywood as inflated box-office estimates.

Synergy refers to the way huge companies use one asset to promote and support another, theoretically making the sum of their assets greater than the various parts. There’s synergy, for example, between Walt Disney Co.'s TV production arm and its ABC network, which in turn operates synergistically with the studio’s theme parks, broadcasting specials from Disney World that can boost ratings and lure people to the park.

There’s synergy when the Fox network runs a prime-time special in advance of Fox’s film release of “X-Men” or places Fox-produced shows such as “The X-Files” on Fox’s FX cable channel.

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Even news outfits aren’t above such cooperation, as demonstrated by CBS News’ shilling for “Survivor” and “Big Brother” on “The Early Show” and elsewhere, or the reports on CBS news radio station KNX-AM (1070) that are really just thinly veiled plugs for the network’s prime-time lineup.

For years, studio executives have pontificated about the merits of synergy, inviting this question: If synergy is so swell, why doesn’t it work better? Why hasn’t Disney produced more hits for ABC? Why isn’t the Fox network mining the studio’s feature arm more effectively and vice versa? Why aren’t there dozens of best-selling Time Warner Books predicated on Warner Bros. movies and TV shows?

The acquisition of the Los Angeles Times by Tribune Co. has brought this riddle into focus on a personal level, helping me reach the following conclusion: Synergy ultimately has to be carried out by individuals who don’t always get along with their corporate brethren, throwing a wrench into what on paper should be a well-oiled machine.

Consider the logical synergistic connection for the Calendar section, which covers the arts and entertainment. Tribune also owns local TV station KTLA-TV, an ideal venue to take advantage of our insights and resources. Moreover, Tribune has sought to benefit from owning television stations along with newspapers in other cities.

Sounds great, except for one little problem: Very few people in the immediate vicinity can stand KTLA’s primary entertainment personality, Sam Rubin--or at least the persona he projects on TV--and the feeling is clearly mutual.

Rubin, of course, is a regular on “The KTLA Morning News,” Los Angeles’ foremost clown college. Not only is the level of giddiness beyond anything I can handle before 10 on a Saturday night, but the morning show embodies just about everything that bugs me about what is generously called local news.

Speaking in exaggerated tones that can start dogs howling within a 10-mile radius, Rubin is billed as a reporter but pretty much lifts everything he reads from the trade papers, usually without crediting them. If Daily Variety columnist Army Archerd calls in sick, Rubin might as well stay home too.

The “Morning News” crew is upfront about using the show as a tool for self-promotion--hardly a rare attribute in Hollywood--but at times this self-indulgence, given that we’re talking about public airwaves, gets out of hand. As just one example, Rubin gave out a Times reporter’s e-mail address on the air, in a snit over a story about the ratings sweeps because it didn’t mention how well his show had performed. (It didn’t mention any other morning program either, but to Rubin this was entirely beside the point.)

Admittedly, a lot of people must enjoy “The Morning News.” In May, the show ranked behind only ABC’s “Good Morning America” locally during its time slot, on average seen in roughly 190,000 (or about 3.7%) of the area’s homes. So in the interest of fairness, I invited Rubin to vent his grievances regarding The Times.

Here is his excerpted response: “Due to the recent purchase of The Times, Howard Rosenberg has found that his stock holdings have doubled in value and more. This of course irks us highly paid TV types. We don’t mind that Howard is more respected than we are, what we really mind is that he is richer than we are.

“Brian Lowry is afforded the opportunity to write just one column a week, and as inexplicable as sometimes his columns can be, readers have the opportunity to pore over his words again and again because of the physical medium of newsprint. Our material, which requires considerably more work, just flies through the air, and then vanishes, gone forever. Of course on certain days, maybe that is a good thing.

“Here are my specific gripes about The Times. The Calendar section only comes out five times per week. What is that Thursday thing? Do you guys all get the day off? The Times, which enjoys a near monopoly in terms of local newspapers, does a terrible job in covering other local media. Guess what: People actually watch local TV and listen to local radio. You would hardly know this from reading the paper.

“In terms of criticism and analysis, The Times does a great job with movies and with television. But in terms of actually breaking any news about either of these subjects, that is left almost entirely to me, or the trades, or the New York Times. Our local paper should be leading the coverage of the industry. The Morning Report often features stories that are two to three days old. The business section has improved, [but] it could still improve more.

“There is no ‘people’ page. I think readers are actually interested in what the celebrated are up to. Where does KABC’s Harold Greene have dinner? The Times does publish a ‘gossip’ column, but it is a truncated version of Liz Smith’s report, again from New York. How about some local dish?

“The biggest complaint of all is that The Times uses thin delivery bags that are not always sealed. My New York Times is never wet; sometimes the Los Angeles Times is all wet, and that is even before I open the paper.

“Now, if Howard Rosenberg could just offer some investment advice, I might be able to help him update his quips just a bit.”

Trying not to be an uncharitable host, I will contest only one point: the assertion that Rubin “breaks” news. The last “scoop” attributed to him, sometime during the Ice Age, turned out to be a false item that Oprah Winfrey was quitting her day job.

Jeff Wald, KTLA’s news director, struck a more conciliatory tone. “He’s just different, like you’re different from Howard Rosenberg,” Wald said.

To my way of thinking, this analogy is true if you consider Howard Rosenberg a brilliant, entertaining, award-winning critic--which he is--and me an annoying loudmouth.

Though Rubin isn’t the only entertainment reporter at KTLA, the alternative on the 10 p.m. news isn’t any better. Rubin gets a few points for being frequently caustic, using his radio pulpits on KNX and KLSX-FM (97.1) to jab at rival TV stations, who aren’t especially fond of him either.

By contrast, the evening news features Mindy Burbano, formerly with “Entertainment Tonight,” whose main qualification appears to be that she is nearly as pretty, bubbly and wildly enthusiastic as her cheerleading counterparts on KTTV. Last week, you could find her stretched out on her back giggling while half-naked members of a male Australian dance troupe hovered over her. When she threw it back to veteran anchor Hal Fishman, he looked like he wanted to crawl under his desk and hide.

This doesn’t bode well for synergy either. Though The Times employs some world-class journalists, scanning the halls does not call the word “bubbly” to mind.

So as the Ladies Home Journal might ask, can this marriage be saved? Wald thinks the two sides can peacefully coexist, suggesting broadcast news and newspapers fulfill complementary roles and don’t really compete with each other.

“There are certainly cultural differences between the way a TV station operates and the way a newspaper operates, and you have to get through all that stuff,” he said.

From a corporate perspective that seems reasonable, even synergistic. It’s just too bad people have to get in the way.

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Brian Lowry’s column appears on Tuesdays. He can be reached by e-mail at brian.lowry@latimes.com.


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