"Media consolidation anger is suddenly in the mainstream," says Matthew Felling, director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs. The public is beginning to wake up to both the reasons for, and the consequences of, such a media environment, says Mr. Felling, who observes that one can trace a seemingly wide array of media outlets back to "a small handful of corporate owners."
The impact of media concentration has been quite evident to TV viewers searching for variety in Olympics coverage. There are six outlets, including CNBC, Bravo, and Telemundo - but they're all owned by NBC Universal.
Elsewhere on the dial, contestants on ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" are zipped off to Disney World, and Fox News broadcasts feature interviews with stars of Fox dramas. Often, such corporate connections are not divulged to viewers. "Everything you see on TV is becoming an ad for something else," says Felling.
News anchors may not openly shill products of corporate sponsors as they once did in the early days of television, but CBS's Dan Rather frequently uses the final two minutes of a broadcast to pitch shows such as the network's "60 Minutes II." That may seem innocuous to viewers, but some analysts say that such cross-promotion comes at a cost.
"Persuasion is at its most effective and frightening when everything seems so natural we don't notice it," says Jon Sloop, associate professor of communication studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. Such precious minutes could be devoted to news instead.
As more companies merge, watch for more tie-ins, say industry insiders. Don't be surprised, for example, to see more aggressive promotion for films and talent from Universal Studios on NBC. Until a merger with Universal Studios this summer, NBC had been the last of the big networks to partner with a major film studio.
"One of the advantages and abilities that we have is the ability to cross-promote," says Jeff Zucker, president of the NBC Universal Television Group. "That's one of the hallmarks of this [vertical] integration."