NBC has no qualms about using news unit as a marketing tool

NBC’s symphony strategy is starting to hit a bad note.

When Comcast took over the network in 2011, NBCUniversal Chief Executive Steve Burke put an emphasis on using one entertainment property to promote another. He dubbed the approach “Project Symphony.”

To be sure, the idea of media companies making use of their platforms to advertise their own assets and personalities is nothing new. ABC’s “Good Morning America” has no qualms about using its valuable time to talk about “Dancing With the Stars.”

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But NBC is becoming the most aggressive in doing this and if it continues it could harm the credibility of its news division. The latest example was Thursday’s episode of the news magazine “Rock Center,” which featured a long segment devoted to promoting the new NBC sitcom “1600 Penn.”

The comedy is about the family of the president trying to adjust to life in the White House. The piece was “reported” by Jenna Bush Hagar, daughter of the former president. The hook was that she was interviewing the actor -- Josh Gad -- who plays an out-of-control kid living in the White House. Art imitating life.

NBC has also not been shy about using its Washington newsmagazine “Meet the Press” to market other company assets. Jay Leno appeared on “Meet the Press” under the guise of discussing political comedy during election season but in reality it was just a way to promote the “Tonight Show.”

“Meet the Press” also did a feature on the Stanley Cup during the last hockey season. NBC, of course, has TV rights to hockey.

“Meet the Press” host David Gregory is also jumping on the “1600 Penn” bandwagon. He interviewed Bill Pullman, who plays the fictional president on “1600 Penn.” That piece is for a webcast, but it will also air in Washington’s WRC-TV, the NBC-owned station there.

With NBC, Project Symphony is a two-way street. News hypes the shows and in return the shows hype the news. NBC News personalities pop up on entertainment programs on a regular basis. It used to be cute when Brian Williams showed up on “30 Rock.” But now it seems desperate. MSNBC personalities have already been on “1600 Penn” and will likely be such a visible presence that they might be eligible for Emmy Awards.

Yes, news personalities have appeared in entertainment shows before. ABC’s Robin Roberts was on the network’s new drama “Nashville.” Walter Cronkite famously once did an episode of “Mary Tyler Moore.” But he didn’t do episodes of “The Jeffersons,” “The Waltons” and “M*A*S*H” all in the same week.

Crazy idea, but maybe news programming should be kept to news. That does not mean that a network can’t do an occasional profile of a celebrity on a news property if there is a good story there to tell.

But that is not what NBC, ABC and the other networks are doing. Instead, they often use news programming as a platform to promote entertainment shows. Not only does it hurt the integrity of the news division, there’s also no proof it helps boost ratings. The morning news programs have already become more about entertainment and pop culture and self-promotion. Do newsmagazines have to follow their lead?

The desire of an entertainment giant to use all its assets to promote its products is perfectly acceptable. But there is a fine line between smart cross-promotion and damaging valuable brands. With regard to Project Symphony, NBC needs to retune its instruments.

Follow Joe Flint on Twitter @JBFlint.


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