When The Media Is Its Own Media

The other day Entertainment Weekly reported that its recent “Dawson’s Creek” reunion issue lead to a spike in viewing of the show on Hulu, which has exclusive streaming rights to the soapy romantic drama. I’m sure the intention behind the touting of its own influence (in addition to touting its own influence) was to have a feel-good last bite at the “Creek” apple, providing an amusing anecdote out the door.

When I read it I couldn’t help but feel a bit of a chill, though, as I saw our consolidated media future laid out in front of me.

One of the primary fears of watchdogs and critics who warn against too much ownership of TV stations/networks, websites, newspapers, movie studios, magazines and other media is that not only do the number of voices and perspectives shrink and become more homogeneous (as we’ve seen recently with Sinclair Media) but that those companies increasingly have a vested interest in promoting their own material. That promotion comes at the expense of an acknowledgement of the outside world, further tamping down competition by simply denying them oxygen.

If you’ve worked in some facet of the marketing industry for any length of time you’re likely familiar with PESO. The acronym stands for the four pillars of the media relations world: Paid (advertising), Earned (public relations), Social (social media) and Owned (websites/blogs). I’ve always preferred the more succinct PEM (Paid, Owned, Managed), but it’s not as catchy and I haven’t been successful at making it stick yet.

The original “Dawson’s” reunion story fell into the Earned category because no money changed hands but was the result of members of a media outlet working with publicity teams to craft a story, which appeared alongside other stories on other topics.

EW has certainly done plenty of stories like that one over the years, reuniting the casts of movies and TV shows to tell stories about the glory days, see how they feel about their work however many years later and so on. A story on “Dawson’s Creek” isn’t anything special.

The problems really come into focus when you account for distribution. Hulu is a joint venture owned in part by Disney, Fox, Comcast/NBCUniversal and Time Warner. In this case there are no apparent corporate conflicts because “Dawson’s” was produced by Sony, which isn’t involved in that platform.

But what if it were? What if the same company that owns the entertainment owns the news media that encourages people to consume the entertainment?

We don’t need to engage in hypotheticals because we have the perfect example already available to us: Disney. It’s used its corporate ownership of ABC to leverage both news programs like “Good Morning, America” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live” to promote a great number of the studio’s recent movies, especially franchises like the Marvel Studios and Star Wars films. The casts of The Force Awakens, Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther and others have shown up for big promotional appearances, sometimes to debut new trailers or other marketing material.

There’s no question that these kinds of stunts and activities would have taken place somewhere, on some show, in any situation. Disney’s vertical ownership allows it to use those shows for its own purposes, depriving some other movie, show or other cultural artifact of space. If an average episode of “Kimmel” has space for say three things – maybe a movie star, a musician and a comedian – devoting an entire hour to the cast of Civil War means two less items the audience has been exposed to. They’ve been kept within the Disney funnel.

That’s why the looming launch of Disney’s OTT service represents the completion of the vertical chain, as this New York Times story points out. Right now the one link it doesn’t control is distribution and once it has that it can use its news assets to promote its entertainment properties available on its proprietary distribution service. PESO becomes obsolete for the company because everything is an owned or managed asset.

The repercussions of such a system should be as apparent as they are disturbing.

First, there’s little need to advertise in other media because you own and control so much of it. Other non-integrated media see ad revenue dry up even further because a very big player isn’t spending.

Second, existing distribution channels are now bringing a knife to square off against several armored divisions. Theaters disappear faster than they are because a big company isn’t providing very popular films, other streaming services have to work harder to make their case (see Netflix’s investment in original programming) and so on.

Third, the availability of placing earned media stories through public relations efforts becomes scant for competitors because the biggest outlets online, in print and on TV are all owned by a direct competitor with zero interest in promoting anything it doesn’t control.

This all may sound fairly benign – we’re just talking about TV and movies, right? – but the Sinclair Media flare up in recent weeks shows the same situation happening with hard news. Independent voices are being subsumed by media giants and turned to work in favor of the agendas and preferences of both corporations and their owners. In other cases such as the Gothamist/DNAinfo situation corporate owners have decided local, independent media is an annoyance that too often asks uncomfortable questions and exposes wrongdoing and so needs to be shut down entirely.

The media should, ideally, be a check on the powers of both government and business. The rules and regulations meant to support that adversarial role, from media ownership limits to the laws protecting net neutrality, have been decimated recently. That leaves us in a world where the press is working for the corporate and not the public good, a situation that has no realistic good outcome for society.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

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