Network Synergy At Work

As horrible as it was, the surreal image of a hijacked jetliner slamming into the World Trade Center wasn't the only picture drawing stunned double takes from viewers. Tuning to MTV and VH1 and finding grim-faced CBS anchor Dan Rather was surprising, too. Ditto for viewers who flipped to TNT or Court TV only to find CNN. And when sports fans turned to ESPN, it had been displaced by ABC News, anchored by Peter Jennings.

There was a method to the media madness: corporate synergy. With tragedy unfolding throughout the day yesterday, the handful of corporate giants that now control the most popular broadcast and cable channels ran their coverage on all of their outlets. The most far-reaching example: AOL Time Warner. It controls TNT, Court TV, local cable-news channels, TBS Superstation and CNNfn as well as CNN-which ran on all of them. Even AOL-owned WB, the youthful broadcast network, dumped its entertainment schedule last night to carry CNN.

Then there's AOL's rival Viacom, parent to CBS. The broadcast network shared its coverage with its Viacom-owned family of cable-TV channels, including not only VH1 and MTV, but also BET, a network that caters to African-American audiences. Last night, even UPN, Viacom's pipsqueak broadcast network, carried news coverage by CBS. News Corp. controls cable's Fox News Channel, which also ran on its sibling Fox Sports Network and XFX. And Disney-owned ESPN carried Disney-owned ABC. NBC controls cable outlets CNBC and MSNBC, which at times yesterday carried the Peacock channel.

Since the 1980s, when the media giants began assembling themselves through major acquisitions, yesterday's approach to covering the terror attack was a frequently discussed goal. On Wall Street and in business schools, the strategy is known as vertical integration. It means that a sprawling company like AOL Time Warner not only can produce news, entertainment and sports programming, but also distribute it exclusively on any one of its cable or broadcast outlets and subsequently "repurpose," or air it, on any of the rest of its networks.

When well implemented, particularly with entertainment programming, vertical integration is a way for the conglomerates to maximize profits. "Being part of the same family, it makes sense" to share the CBS news coverage with Viacom-owned MTV and VH1, says Leslie Moonves, CEO of CBS. He noted that it was far more sensible for the cable networks to pick up coverage from CBS than to launch their efforts from scratch. Says Moonves: "It's not all that complicated. They don't have news divisions as we do. We gave access to a sister company." A spokesman for AOL-owned Turner Broadcasting called the sharing of CNN coverage by its corporate siblings "a first."

Despite the family connections, the networks took care to maintain their separate identities. Most not only displayed their logos in a corner of the television screen but also ran a scrolling message. "VH1 has suspended normal programming and is bringing you live CBS News coverage" was the message from the music channel.

Not every member of a media giant's television holdings shared in the corporate largesse. At Viacom, for instance, Nickelodeon didn't carry CBS. And AOL's Cartoon Network skipped CNN's coverage of the tragedy. "We didn't want to run cartoons and bring a lot of kids to the channel only to have to possibly cut away to breaking news" of the unfolding event, a spokesman says. In keeping Nickelodeon free of CBS news, a network spokesman said the company "decided it would be good for children to have somewhere to go."