Media Monsters Know Best

Brian Lowry is a Times staff writer. His "On TV" column appears Wednesdays in Calendar

Picture Rod Serling, lips tightly pursed and a cigarette clutched in one hand.

"Submitted for your approval are the Andersons," he begins, "an unsuspecting and wholly fictitious Southern California family of five. They don't realize it yet, but over the course of this day they will among them consume nearly 24 hours of media, without ever escaping the clutches of a single corporate behemoth--one that passes unnoticed into their homes, their cars, even the great outdoors. It's a story we call

"A Day in the Life of Viacom."

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But first, this message.

Although invoking images of "The Twilight Zone" may feel a tad extreme, a former high-ranking television executive recently observed over lunch that the size of today's media monsters is "frightening," which seemed rather remarkable given the source was someone who spent years inside the belly of the beast.

Granted, we hear all the time about consolidation of media, about the staggering assortment of assets residing under corporate umbrellas such as AOL Time Warner, Viacom, Disney and News Corp. The companies themselves even point proudly to their aggregated might when chatting up investment bankers and advertisers, with a CBS executive recently proclaiming that parent Viacom's various networks are seen by 85% of U.S. households during an average week.

As impressive as such figures sound, however, the standard response might be, "So what?" Most people, after all, go about their day never giving a second thought to the source of information and entertainment they receive, and even if they do, the parent company's logo is usually far removed from the finished product.

"Media companies continue to grow, and a shrinking number of them shape what we view and read," the Columbia Journalism Review notes on its Web site, http://www.cjr.org , on a page detailing "Who Owns What," which proceeds to ask, "What does that mean for journalists--and for the nation?"

If the answers aren't entirely clear, many find the idea of funneling so much content through so few hands troubling on its face. Still, without demonstrating how gee-whiz numbers translate into the way people consume media, it's hard to fully comprehend the manner in which far-flung companies engulf us--much like the invisible monster of the id in the sci-fi classic "Forbidden Planet."

In that context, it seemed appropriate to bring back the late Serling, gifted storyteller that he was, to introduce a ground-level examination of how pervasive a single media conglomerate can be. Viacom, which has boasted about the "cradle-to-grave" reach the company offers advertisers, was a logical choice, though in truth any of the corporations cited could illustrate the point equally well.

So with that , we bring you (cue eerie music) ... "A Day in the Life of Viacom."

The day begins at 7 a.m., when Jim and Margaret Anderson rise and begin to rouse their brood. Margaret turns on CBS' "The Early Show" for a few minutes, while Jim listens to KNX-AM (1070) for news and traffic as he gets dressed.

Kathy, the couple's 8-year-old daughter, pops on Nickelodeon even as her siblings, 17-year-old Betty and 14-year-old James Jr. (whom everyone calls Bud for some reason), scramble to get ready for school.

Jim drops off Bud at his middle school. On the way, the boy glimpses a billboard for the Paramount movie "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," which he has seen advertised on MTV and plans to catch that weekend. Jim sees several Outdoor Systems Inc. billboards and transit buses bearing ads that hardly generate a second thought, although he can't help but notice a few scantily clad models.

Once alone in the car, Jim listens to Howard Stern's syndicated radio show on KLSX-FM (97.1). Laughing along with Stern's daily freak show, Jim hears a lengthy discussion regarding the babes on "Survivor," intermittently getting traffic reports from both KNX and KFWB (980), another AM news station. At one point, KNX airs a report about what's on CBS that night, although Jim isn't certain whether it's an ad or part of the newscast.

Margaret leaves the house slightly later with Kathy--listening to oldies station KRTH-FM (101.1) or classic hits KCBS-FM (Arrow 93.1) during her drive. Betty and a friend tune in alternative rock station KROQ-FM (106.7), which is running a promotion to call in and win "Tomb Raider" tickets, on the way to her high school.

With Kathy dropped off, Margaret heads to her part-time job, although she makes a point of viewing "The Young and the Restless," her one daytime TV addiction, during her lunch hour.

Margaret picks up Kathy at 3 p.m., and the girl happily spends a couple of hours perched in front of the TV--watching "Rugrats" (making a mental note to ask Mom for a new "Rugrats" backpack) and "Rocket Power" on Nickelodeon, subsequently switching to a rerun of Spelling Television's "7th Heaven"--while her mother gets a jump on dinner.

During that time, Bud gets home, turning on MTV's "Total Request Live" in his room. Jim feels dog-tired when he walks in but still flips on "The CBS Evening News With Dan Rather" for a few minutes.

After dinner, the family scatters to different rooms, each equipped with a TV set. Margaret watches a rerun of "Frasier," which Paramount produces, then part of a special on VH1. Jim spends a little time surfing the Internet--checking both his stocks on CBS MarketWatch and the $1-million sweepstakes on IWon.com, which would make some of those concerns about his portfolio refreshingly moot. Around 9 o'clock, Jim joins his wife, who has gotten him hooked on CBS' "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."

Bud, a wrestling fan who took in a few hours of body-slamming on TNN earlier in the week, watches "WWF Smackdown!" on the UPN network. Kathy stays glued to Nickelodeon--one of the few channels she has carte blanche to watch unsupervised--until her 9 p.m. bedtime.

Betty meets up with a friend, and since they've both seen that night's episode of Spelling's "Charmed" the two decide to rent a video at Blockbuster. Paramount's "M:I-2" wins out over "The Original Kings of Comedy," an MTV production that Betty saw promoted on Black Entertainment Television, and "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut," which they've both seen several times.

Both Bud and Kathy are in bed by the time Betty gets home, at which point Margaret retires and picks up the book she's been reading, "On the Street Where You Live," the latest Mary Higgins Clark bestseller from Simon & Schuster. (Jim recently finished Stephen King's "Dreamcatcher," from Scribner, and has moved on to "George W. Bushisms," a Pocket Books collection of some of the president's "accidental wit.")

The house is quiet now, so Jim catches up on that day's sports scores from KCBS-TV's newscast (a default choice, really, since he missed sports on the two rival network-owned stations), although sports follows a three-minute plug for casting the next edition of "Survivor." Jim vaguely recalls seeing some reference to a lawsuit regarding the show, although KCBS makes no mention of it.

Still feeling wide awake, Jim decides to stay up for David Letterman's opening monologue. At the first commercial break, he somewhat furtively switches to pay channel Showtime, which is running something called "Extreme Body Heat 3," a "thriller" that almost immediately involves a nurse rather explicitly seducing one of her patients. (Bud also happens to be watching "Extreme Body Heat 3" in his room with the light out, though Jim and Margaret don't know it.)

It's near midnight by the time all the TVs and radios, all the VCRs and billboards have been reduced to memory. And every single one cited ultimately answers to 78-year-old Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone, who presides over this multibillion-dollar enterprise.

While this exercise paints the outline of a media monster, as with that beast in "Forbidden Planet," the picture no doubt remains a little fuzzy to many, as does the potential threat. Over the years, allegations regarding the impact of media concentration range from the nebulous (a homogenization of the programming) to the insidious (news and entertainment programs being used to subtly push a certain corporate or political agenda).

Moreover, the Internet's promise as an equalizer--a new distribution system to level the playing field for independent and alternative voices--has largely fizzled, as Web-centric news and entertainment ventures struggle financially. As a result, traditional media companies--who are also positioning themselves to be at the forefront of that frontier when and if it matures--currently maintain what amounts to a vise-like hold on the lion's share of available content.

Of course, given the disparate tastes represented by all these aforementioned assets, some of you still might not fathom what the fuss is about, or why these media giants pose any kind of a danger or warrant much concern.

Maybe there is little to fear from the fact that a few companies act as gatekeepers in determining what reaches us through TV networks, radio stations, publishing houses, even theme parks. Yet as that TV executive recognized, it might just be that these modern monsters are much like that invisible one from "Forbidden Planet," where, by the time its footprints became apparent, it was almost too late for anybody to stop it.

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