Cradle To Grave Tv

Months ago, WB network CEO Jamie Kellner greenlit "The Oblongs," one of the more bizarre projects ever slated for prime-time television. The upcoming cartoon series on the AOL Time Warner-owned WB is a wicked satire showcasing a family of misfits living in a toxic valley. The father, Bob, is a limbless optimist. Wife Pickles is a bald, chain-smoking alcoholic. Two of the kids, Biff and Chip, are conjoined twins sharing three legs and three buttocks. But the twisted content is not the new show's most remarkable aspect. Rather, it's he novel plan Kellner is weighing to air it on several AOL Time Warner channels in short order, vastly expanding the audience for the expensive animated production. On April Fools' Day, "The Oblongs" will debut on teen-friendly WB. Soon after, it likely will appear on the Cartoon Network. "This wouldn't have happened before,'' says Kellner.

Kellner is offering a glimpse of the future of television. Dub it "cradle to grave" TV. Media giants are racing to ever more tightly link their cable and broadcast networks to share TV shows, big advertisers and, most important, viewers from across age lines, kids to grandparents. To advance the strategy, AOL Time Warner reorganized its vast TV empire, putting Kellner, one of the medium's most successful executives, firmly in control. The move positions the company to compete more effectively with rivals like Viacom, News Corp. and Disney. In a high-profile example of the new synergy, Viacom's CBS, whose viewers are generally older, turned to its younger, hipper corporate sibling MTV to throw the halftime bash for CBS's Super Bowl broadcast in January featuring 'N Sync and others pop stars. It's just the kind of potentially profitable back-scratching that companies cited as a compelling reason for the huge deals that created media giants. But until recently, internal political squabbling hindered such partnerships. The huge companies face tremendous pressure to meet their financial targets, so they're being forced to play nice.

If synergy is finally at hand in media land, it couldn't have materialized at a better time. Economic storm clouds are hovering overhead, and big advertisers are retrenching. In response, the television giants are trying to reassemble the kind of mass audiences that advertisers love by linking their fragmented cable and broadcast viewership. For Big Media, today's holy grail is "multiplatform" advertising--bundling together in a single purchase ads that can run on cable and broadcast TV, on the Internet and in magazines. Viacom says it has sold "Viacom-Plus" package deals to almost 20 different advertisers--including mutual-fund giant Fidelity and Pennzoil--that spread their brand names across Viacom's radio outlets, billboards, cable channels and the CBS network. AOL Time Warner last week announced similar deals with Continental Airlines and Kinko's. There's another benefit: because television shows can now cost more than $1 million an episode to produce, media companies can get far greater mileage from their investment by airing and promoting the shows on multiple outlets.

Viacom, for one, is off to a strong start in the synergy sweepstakes. It purchased CBS last year, adding the venerable network to its roster of cable channels, which include MTV, VH1, Nick at Nite, TV Land, Nickelodeon, The National Network and CMT. So far, its flashiest effort surrounded the Super Bowl. On the eve of the big Sunday game, there was "CBS Presents: MTV Super Bowl Uncensored." On game day, the broadcast network aired "CBS Sports Presents: MTV's TRL at the Super Bowl," a special version of the hugely popular video-request show hosted by VJ heartthrob Carlson Daly. And, of course, there was the MTV-produced halftime show featuring the cross-generational pairing of bubble-gum pop star Britney Spears with the venerable rockers of Aerosmith. For MTV, the collaboration provided perhaps the cable brand's widest exposure ever. And for CBS, MTV was a fountain of youth. "If you look at the minute-by-minute [audience] ratings by demographics, you could see the younger people tuning in at halftime," said David Poltrack, the network's chief statistician. The two networks have coproduced news programs: MTV News once collaborated with CBS's "48 Hours" news magazine on a story on the drug ecstasy. And overall, CBS credits MTV promotions of "Survivor" for helping to attract younger viewers to the network.

With last week's restructuring, AOL Time Warner is hoping to convert rival siblings into teammates. The company not only is the second largest cable-TV operator, but also a cable-programming powerhouse, with such mammoth networks as TNT (one of the nation's largest cable networks), TBS, Cartoon Network and HBO. The WB is the successful young broad-caster in the family. Recently, the Turner networks used cut-rate ads to promote the January launch of the new WB show "Pop Stars." More collaborations are forthcoming. Says Kellner, who founded WB and earlier had helped found rival Fox: "We are crossing the broadcast and cable divide, and that hasn't been done."

Such coziness is a new thing at Time Warner. Having acquired Turner Broadcasting in 1996 and been acquired itself by AOL in January, Time War-ner saw synergy as goal, not as reality. Since 1989, when journalism giant Time Inc. acquired showbiz concern Warner Communications, corporate-culture clashes have scuttled most efforts at collaborating. The WB and Turner networks could hardly coexist. It grew especially intense as the money-losing upstart broadcaster sought to become a powerhouse in kids' programming, in direct competition with Turner's Cartoon Network. Ted Turner, the volatile cable-programming visionary and then Time Warner's largest shareholder, sought to shut down the WB. "We were at odds," recalls Kellner. "My bosses [at Warner Bros. studio] and he had differences of opinions about the right way to be in the network business." Turner wanted to buy NBC, an established network, not waste resources on a costly start-up.

But with so much at stake now since AOL arrived, the company is trying to put an end to internecine warfare. Kellner's appointment reflects the new reality. "We're trying to build great teams," says co-COO Bob Pittman, Kellner's boss. "It's a new way of doing things, and we're all invested in it." And it better pay off, otherwise AOL Time Warner's television business could end up as dysfunctional as "The Oblongs."