On Wednesday, July 25, when Rupert Murdoch did the patented 800-pound-gorilla act that he’s been practicing and perfecting for more than 20 years in this country, convincing federal officials, politicians and regulators that their dusty, moldy old rules didn’t really apply to News Corporation, New York City’s media landscape was immediately transformed.
The Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 that Wednesday to let Fox Television Holdings buy Chris-Craft Industries for a spiffy $4.4 billion-a decision that locally allowed Mr. Murdoch to add WWOR/Channel 9 to his other holdings in the city, including WNYW/Channel 5 and, of course, the New York Post . The deal gives him a hold on the readers and viewers in New York unlike anyone else’s in the history of the city. Nobody-not Hearst, Luce or any Sulzberger-has ever owned two VHF channels, one cable-news network and a bumptious 487,000 circulation newspaper at once.
Now there’s intense speculation about what impact the F.C.C. decision will have upon the local media market. It’s assumed there will be consolidation at WWOR and WNYW, particularly on the sales and technical side. Local news staffers at WNYW expect they’ll be asked to contribute to WWOR, until last week a competitor.
But then the mind races … what about a bigger TV role for the New York Post , now led by Aussie flame-thrower Col Allan? Is there a home for the “Lizziemobile” on The 10 O’Clock News ? Maybe you’ll get the Roland & Roland News Hour , starring WNYW anchor John Roland and his WWOR counterpart, Roland Smith.
More startling is the clout that the F.C.C. decision gives Mr. Murdoch in New York City’s local news cycle. With two local news operations, a newspaper-not to mention a loudmouthed national cable-television network-the News Corp. chairman and chief executive wields an unprecedented bat in this town. Wasn’t that what the F.C.C. was supposed to stand in the way of?
“The old rules were meant to prevent that,” said Sreenath Sreenivasan, an associate professor of professional practice at the Columbia School of Journalism. “I don’t want to say that it’s going to be the end of the world. But I should tell you: In my classes for years, I’ve been kidding that we’ll all be working for Rupert Murdoch and Bill Gates …. With this [decision], we’ve definitely taken one more step down that path.”
News Corp., of course, has long contended that the old rules on media ownership are outmoded in today’s media universe, with its proliferation of news options on television, radio and the Internet. That universe has changed significantly since 1993, when regulators gave Mr. Murdoch a permanent waiver to keep both the Post and WNYW, said News Corp. spokesman Andrew Butcher.
“Back when we got the initial waiver for the Post , there was a lot less media in New York than there is now,” Mr. Butcher said. “Since then, the Internet has sprung up – and all of this new media contributed to a much different and diverse world.”
News Corp. had to make this case in Washington, D.C., and there the company initiated a classically Murdochian full-court press. Lawyers from the Beltway powerhouse Hogan & Hartson and other heavy-hitting emissaries were enlisted to help Fox Television’s claim. The election of George W. Bush simply made the case easier to win, said one attorney who tried to block the acquisition.
“They sent armies of lawyers in to petition,” said Christopher Day, a lawyer with Georgetown University’s Institute for Public Representation, which represented several groups hoping to derail News Corp.’s bid, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition. “The commission was probably leaning towards a more deregulatory shift anyway, but they [News Corp.] are very, very politically connected, and they really brought some of the big heavyweights in Washington out for this.”
Mr. Butcher scoffed at the suggestion that the F.C.C. bent its rules for News Corp. or that the company got a rubber stamp from the Bush administration.
“We did this deal under the Clinton administration,” he said. “We didn’t know which way the election was going to go. Believe it or not, Rupert Murdoch doesn’t decide election votes.”
But now, it’s clear that Mr. Murdoch will have an even larger role in deciding what’s news in New York. With three local outlets in the Post , WNYW and WWOR, News Corp. has an unrivaled depth in the city-and an effective one, observers said.
“Cable doesn’t come anywhere near the power of broadcast, especially in its local impact,” said Ted Faraone, a New York–based television consultant. “A local news operation has a tremendous impact on its community.”
Mr. Faraone was careful not to make bold predictions about how News Corp. might flex its growing New York news muscle. Others noted that News Corp. hadn’t been particularly aggressive about promoting the Post on WNYW, even though the company has held both properties for years.
As for how WNYW and WWOR might co-exist, Mr. Farone said he envisioned a situation where programming ideas and personnel were tried out on one local station to see if they might fit on the other. “You could have the Oldsmobile-Cadillac scenario,” he said. For years, when G.M. came out with a new gadget, first you’d see it on Oldsmobiles, then on Cadillacs, he explained.
And while some critics saw News Corp.’s deal as a blow against competition and the quality of local TV news, others argued that such concerns were overblown. Jerry Nachman, a former WCBS news director as well as New York Post editor, said that local television news has long been an industry obsessed with saving money.
“All this stuff about ‘This is a holy writ’-local stations were always profit centers,” Mr. Nachman said. “It was always part of our job description to worry about costs.”
Mr. Nachman said that some consolidation would be a good idea for all of New York’s television-news outlets. “I have often wondered, why are there nine cameras at a Giuliani news conference?” he said. “You can argue for nine reporters, but do we need nine cameras?”
But Mr. Sreenivasan, too, sounded resolved to the winds of change.
“It’s the march of conglomeration,” said Mr. Sreenivasan. “The red flags are that you’re probably going to have news departments merging. You’re going to have less news. You get the sinking feeling that we’re getting less independence.”
Tonight, catch The 10 O’Clock News while it’s still independent, anchored by John Roland and Rosanna Scotto. [WNYW, 5, 10 p.m.]
Thursday, August 2
Meanwhile, Murdoch Nation’s big mama bear, the Fox News Channel, is looking a little concerned over a recent guest.
On July 9, Fox News’ Neil Cavuto invited Robert Jones on to Your World with Neil Cavuto . Speaking from Salt Lake City, Mr. Jones claimed to represent an organization called the Gay-Inclusive Advertising Campaign.
Mr. Jones told Mr. Cavuto he was upset that the skin-happy Abercrombie & Fitch catalog was … not gay enough .
“The problem that I have with the A&F Quarterly is that, in the 90’s, they had a lot of very positive gay imagery or ambiguously gay imagery,” Mr. Jones said of the Bruce Weber–lensed ode to buff young bucks. “You weren’t sure if they were necessarily gay or not … and it attracted a loyal gay clientele to Abercrombie & Fitch. But in the late 90’s, Abercrombie & Fitch has strayed away from that.”
It was a novel argument to hear, even on the Fox News Channel, which, of course, has long been celebrated for its campy deconstructions of gay culture.
Mr. Jones’ appearance soon grabbed the attention of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. GLAAD announced that no one they knew had ever heard of Mr. Jones or his group. Neither had Mike Wilke, a journalist and gay-media imagery expert who runs an organization called the Commercial Closet.
GLAAD was miffed. Even if Mr. Jones and his Gay-Inclusive Advertising Campaign were for real, Fox had booked a fringe advocate to get a cheap, titillating story, they charged.
“This calls into question their credibility, their willingness to sensationalize our issues,” said GLAAD spokesperson Cathy Renna.
Meanwhile, Fox News was running around after the fact, trying to figure out whether or not Mr. Jones was legit. They even called Mr. Wilke for his opinion.
“They were trying to reconstruct the situation,” Mr. Wilke said. “It was sort of belated that they were looking into this guy.”
It’s still unclear who Mr. Jones is and if his Gay-Inclusive Advertising Campaign is real, fake, big, small or just something GLAAD hasn’t caught wind of.
An effort by NYTV to locate Mr. Jones was unsuccessful. He does appear to have some kind of Web site, http://www.giacampaign.org, and according to the site-registration database on register.com, http://www.-giacampaign.org was created on the same day as Mr. Jones’ appearance on Mr. Cavuto’s show. A Salt Lake City telephone number for Mr. Jones provided by Fox News said the number was disconnected; it referred callers to another number, which was answered by an automated answering system. Messages left there went unreturned.
Fox News vice president of programming Kevin Magee wasn’t ready to swallow humble pie just yet, but he did acknowledge that his troops should have done better research on Mr. Jones prior to putting him on the air. Mr. Magee said that Fox, too, had lately been unable to touch base with Mr. Jones to confirm GIAC’s legitimacy.
“I wish we had done more checking on his organization and the support for his organization than we did,” Mr. Magee said. “Unfortunately, when you are at a 24-hour news channel, you get a lot of swings at the ball, and sometimes you miss.”
Batter up! Mr. Magee sounded hopeful that Mr. Jones would eventually surface, but said that Fox will ‘fess up if it finds that a mistake was made. “If we come to the conclusion that we have been had, we’ll tell our audience that,” he said.
Ah, well. Tonight on the Fox News Channel’s O’Reilly Factor , Bill O’Reilly and guests Harvey Fierstein, Bruce Vilanch and the cast of Naked Boys Singing discuss Judy Garland. [FNC, 46, 8 p.m.]
Friday, August 3
Tonight, NBC’s got Mysterious Ways , mysteriously still on the air. Isn’t there a Weakest Link rerun kicking around over there? [WNBC, 4, 8 p.m.]
Saturday, August 4
& You may have seen that Warner Bros. is asking $70 million for the network TV rights to the upcoming Harry Potter movie. As a comparison, ABC paid $5.99 for tonight’s TV debut of Carpool, starring Tom Arnold and Rhea Perlman. [WABC, 7, 8 p.m.]
Sunday, August 5
Tonight, the shiny-headed ha-ha guy Dave Attell ( Pootie Tang, The Daily Show ) bows his own Comedy Central series, Insomniac . This means the number of men in New York City who don’t have their own Comedy Central series is down to five.
Mr. Attell’s thing is to run around American cities and find people doing strange things after the midnight hour. So far, he’s roamed New York, Kansas City, Houston, Memphis, New Orleans, San Francisco, Tijuana ….
“I’m a road comic,” Mr. Attell said. “I always wanted to do something where I could stay on the road, since I’m not an actor. If you’ve seen Pootie Tang, you’d agree with me.”
Mr. Attell said he’s actually a bona fide insomniac who usually goes to bed around 6 or 7 a.m. and only sleeps for a couple of hours. “I’m not really an eight-hour man,” he said. [CMDY, 45, midnight.]
Monday, August 6
Tonight on NBC’s Fear Factor , an NBC marketing team is locked in a closet with a group of TV critics watching the pilot of Emeril. [WNBC, 4, 8 p.m.]
Tuesday, August 7
Bless those clever folks at PBS. Tonight they’ve got The Wrinkle Cure , in which Yale dermatologist Nicholas Perricone will tell PBS’s creaky donors how to extend their fat-walleted lives through healthy eating. [WNET, 13, 8 p.m.]