Is There Such A Thing As Societal Responsibility In Media?

When local radio stations air call-in shows, especially of the sports talk variety, it is expected that the content of these shows will be, shall we say, less than savory. Listeners beware – the views you hear may not be those of the station, its owners, or anyone but those speaking.

Shows like these and Howard Stern, “Greaseman,” and others are easy to find since they proliferate almost as much as they instigate. Provocation sells – and people listen in predictably huge numbers. So, advertisers frequently pay a premium for airtime on these programs, which reach huge audiences.

Over the past few years, national television networks have been increasingly resorting to this – what I like to call “car wreck” programming. The reference, of course, is to what none of us wants to see on the road, but which none of us can take our eyes off when we encounter it. Almost every time I speak to a female friend who watches “The Bachelor,” for instance, that is the descriptor I hear – that as awful as it is, and as repulsive its messages to women, it’s like watching a car wreck. She can’t take her eyes off it.

I’d pretty much written off this trend as it pertains to prime time television. Divisive themes will always get the attention of large audiences, and that’s the network executives’ job. Any VP of programming knows that pandering to base elements will always draw the car wreck crowd. And why do we watch television, anyway? It’s only entertainment, right? Who cares?

One of the ironies about this for us in online is that, of course, we could never have this conversation about Web media. The stratification of our properties is so precise, that you’d never see one of our “Big Three” pander this way, although AOL did just inject a whole new level of sexuality into its broadcast advertising, with their pop-up blocker feature depicting a supermodel emerging from a pool, but covered by pop ups.

Fact is the designations of brand on the Web will likely remain more precise because there are so many more properties vying for eyeballs. But, I’m wondering if, at least in terms of television, we may be coming to a crossroads of sorts. Something happened this week that is getting the attention of those of us who follow sports programming when Rush Limbaugh made these comments about Donovan McNabb, the Eagles’ quarterback.

“I think what we’ve had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well,” Limbaugh said on the show. “There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn’t deserve.”

The response was predictable, with outcry from those who wanted Rush ousted and defense from people at Disney-owned ESPN. But then came this response from Eagles’ owner Jeff Lurie.

“The issue is not Rush Limbaugh. The issue is how we’ve come to hire Rush Limbaugh, and how we’ve come to portray athletes. For example, showcasing NFL players purportedly doing cocaine at halftime in ‘Playmakers.’ Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Lurie charged that ESPN, which pays the NFL $800 million per year for broadcasting rights, needs to be more responsible in its programming and hiring practices.

“The onus of responsibility is really on the company that hires people like this and portrays athletes to boost ratings,” Lurie said. “ESPN has been a very well-run company, but some of the events of this week have been built with institutional racism. It exists. Let’s not hide it or make us believe that the problem is a single person, because it’s far from that.”

“Disney’s brand is Mickey Mouse, Magic Kingdom. How would they like it if Minnie Mouse were portrayed as Pablo Escobar and the Magic Kingdom as a drug cartel?”

Responsibility? That’s a big word. I’m no Pollyanna, but I have to say that I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Lurie. At some point, media properties and their owners have to accept a measure of responsibility. I’m glad Mr. Lurie pointed out the corporate and branding implications of this example, with a sort of Golden Rule example for Disney’s own brand.

As media continues to proliferate, the lines between opinion and editorial, advertising and copy will continue to blur. What advertisers sell and what messages media projects have always needed to live in the same neighborhood. But, increasingly, they will have to live in the same house. In no other media is that more true than on the Web. After all, isn’t that why contextual search is so hot?

No other media has been held to as high a standard, at least among its primary properties, which have to clearly differentiate themselves from the dreck found elsewhere online. Perhaps those of you in broadcast will blame the Web for this trend in television. Whatever the case, let’s see how Disney, ESPN, and the NFL respond to this latest flap.

By Mark Naples
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