Saturday, August 1, 2009

Proving, once again, that Paddy Chayefsky was miles ahead of the curve

I'm not aware of any evidence that, during their recent conversation, NBC-Universal CEO Jeff Zucker ever said to Keith Olbermann, "You have meddled with the primary forces of nature, Mr. Olbermann, and I won't have it! Is that clear?"

Nor is there report that Olbermann (or Bill O'Reilly, down the street at FOX, after a similar encounter with his corporate masters) came away convinced he'd seen the face of God. But that's probably because, by that point, real-time events were already working so hard to outdistance even the harshest satire that throwing in such obvious references would have been gilding the lily.

For years Keith Olbermann of MSNBC had savaged his prime-time nemesis Bill O’Reilly of the Fox News Channel and accused Fox of journalistic malpractice almost nightly. Mr. O’Reilly in turn criticized Mr. Olbermann’s bosses and led an exceptional campaign against General Electric, the parent company of MSNBC.

It was perhaps the fiercest media feud of the decade and by this year, their bosses had had enough. But it took a fellow television personality with a neutral perspective to help bring it to at least a temporary end.

At an off-the-record summit meeting for chief executives sponsored by Microsoft in mid-May, the PBS interviewer Charlie Rose asked Jeffrey Immelt, chairman of G.E., and his counterpart at the News Corporation, Rupert Murdoch, about the feud.

Both moguls expressed regret over the venomous culture between the networks and the increasingly personal nature of the barbs. Days later, even though the feud had increased the audience of both programs, their lieutenants arranged a cease-fire, according to four people who work at the companies and have direct knowledge of the deal.

In early June, the combat stopped, and MSNBC and Fox, for the most part, found other targets for their verbal missiles (Hello, CNN).

“It was time to grow up,” a senior employee of one of the companies said.

The reconciliation — not acknowledged by the parties until now — showcased how a personal and commercial battle between two men could create real consequences for their parent corporations. A G.E. shareholders’ meeting, for instance, was overrun by critics of MSNBC (and one of Mr. O’Reilly’s producers) last April.

“We all recognize that a certain level of civility needed to be introduced into the public discussion,” Gary Sheffer, a spokesman for G.E., said this week. “We’re happy that has happened.”

The parent companies declined to comment directly on the details of the cease-fire, which was orchestrated in part by Jeff Zucker, the chief executive of NBC Universal, and Gary Ginsberg, an executive vice president who oversees corporate affairs at the News Corporation. [...]

Over time, G.E. and the News Corporation concluded that the fighting “wasn’t good for either parent,” said an NBC employee with direct knowledge of the situation. But the session hosted by Mr. Rose provided an opportunity for a reconciliation, sealed with a handshake between Mr. Immelt and Mr. Murdoch.

Olbermann has since insisted, "I am party to no deal," leaving us to wonder if the absence on "Countdown" of any mention of O'Reilly or FOX after the corporate detente is coincidence. I suppose, technically, he's right, since the deal was cut by Immelt and Murdoch, leaving Olbermann simply as someone tasked with carrying out its terms, rather than a party to the deal itself.

Here's an alternate version of the Olbermann visitation, as (p)retold by Oscar-winning screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky:

Seriously: Other than network executives ordering the on-air assassination of one of their own news personalities because he had lousy ratings, is there any major plot point from "Network" that hasn't been played out--without a trace of irony--by the American news media in the three decades since the film was released?

  • Rendering the news and entertainment divisions virtually indistinguishable, if not formally merged? Check.

  • Handing airtime over to spokespersons for fringe, often-violent political groups because their behavior draws big audiences? Check.

  • Interfering from the highest corporate levels with programming content to protect business interests? Check. (Even Chayefsky didn't foresee rival networks cutting deals to protect each other's interests by toning down on-air content.)

By the way, Glenn Greenwald points out what a load of self-serving claptrap it is to describe Charlie Rose as someone "with a neutral perspective" in this situation.

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