Is Fox News Getting 'Snubbed' by Hollywood?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012
Two recent movies featuring television news clips but none were of Fox News...oversight or intentional snub?

I've written here from time to time about how journalism just seems to sneak up on me when I least expect it and my last two visits to one of our local cineplexes fall into that 'covert' category.  With the advent of the summer 'blockbuster' season, I've been drawn by the media hype and publicity surrounding several new releases of the 'action/adventure' genre.  During its opening weekend, my son and I went to see Battleship to see just how bad a movie based upon a board game could be (not good but not as bad as we anticipated).  Over the holiday weekend, the whole family spent part of a hot Memorial Day afternoon watching Marvel's The Avengers (which was good even without knowing the intricate 'back stories' of the characters or seeing any of the 'prequel' films like Captain America: The First Avenger or Thor).

I don't want to ruin the plots for anyone who hasn't yet seen them, but both movies featured spectacular activities that would easily attract the attention of nearly every news outlets around the globe.  Both had scenes where television news outlets were prominently displayed as an integral part of portraying those fictional activities to their equally fictional audiences (and to the real moviegoers in the theater).  In Battleship, since one significant event happened outside the United States, we are treated to a montage of video clips of domestic and international news outlets covering it.  In Marvel's The Avengers, the action stayed primarily inside America's borders (Asgard excluded) so only US cable news providers are featured.  While MSNBC was featured in both films (with CNN also seen prominently in the latter one), the ratings leader of that specific category of televised media in the United States was conspicuously absent.

The purpose of this post is not to debate about whether the Fox News Channel is actually a 'news' outlet but I do need to tread into that discussion for just a quick paragraph or three.  In my short time as a journalism student, the overwhelming majority of my fellow students (and my instructor) has expressed their own doubts on that claim in our scholastic and personal discussions.  If I may wax "Clinton-esque" for a moment, it does depend upon what your definition of the word 'news' is.  Meriam-Webster lists one meaning as "material reported in a newspaper or news periodical or on a newscast" so a 'fig leaf' is there when you realize that News Corporation poured millions into a television network operation to purportedly be a "fair and balanced" outlet while it adorns itself with a self-described "counterweight" role to combat perceived liberal bias at other national news networks.

While Fox News does enjoy a substantial ratings lead over its two main cable news rivals (Current TV is too new and too weak viewership-wise to put into that league), it is routinely clobbered by the nightly newscasts on the three major television networks.  The O'Reilly Factor, FNC's highest rated program, attracted just over four million viewers last Wednesday for its 8PM initial 60-minute broadcast and its 11PM repeat.  In comparison, the CBS Evening News, the lowest rated network newscast for the week of May 14th, had almost 1.5 million more viewers for its single 30-minute broadcast (NBC Nightly News' viewership figure was nearly double that of the Fox News host). Fox News Sunday, that channel's sole news offering for its Fox affiliates across the country, routinely comes in fourth of the five national Sunday morning news/talk shows (only Univision's Al Punto--"To the Point"--has less viewers).

Although Fox News might be able to boast superior ratings, those numbers belie certain unattractive demographic information about their average viewers.  In a 2010 survey released by media analyst Steve Sternberg, he stated that Fox's average viewer was 65 years old, two years older than one who views CNN and six years older than an MSNBC watcher.  Unfortunately, with the advent of the internet and a plethora of 'smart' devices that provide news and information to the younger generations, these numbers will only increase until those television audiences eventually--and literally--die off.

OK, back to the movies.  During my lifetime, I've seen films depict the dissemination of news related to their storyline in various ways.  The 'spinning paper' was originally used a transition device that, through overuse, eventually spun itself into cliché status.  With newspapers being the primary mode of obtaining information through most of the 20th century, this overt mechanism was created in order to portray to the audience the very intimate process of reading.  With the advent of radio, we began to see people huddled around a table-top or console unit straining to hear the latest update about a significant domestic or foreign event or a presidential address.  When television was introduced, that huddling was now done in front of a screen to view both images and sounds for similar reasons or merely to be entertained.

The first time I can remember seeing a non-fictional cable news network portrayed in a movie was the 1997 screen adaptation of Carl Sagan's novel, Contact, where CNN's coverage of the film's newsworthy events was inescapable to the viewer.  The Cable News Network was featured three others that year (The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Air Force One, and The Peacemaker) and this now seems to be the standard method for movie directors to incorporate today's media into their works.  Time Warner acquired the Turner Broadcasting System, which included its prized news organization, in October 1996 and many saw this overt 'branding' in Contact as a way to announce their latest media acquisition to the movie-going population.  A backlash from the journalistic community to this apparent breach of ethics ensued about the violation of the long-time recognized separation between news divisions and their corporate parents, and this criticism forced the network to announce that it, along with its journalists, would no longer be allowed to appear on the silver screen.  Sometime over the past 15 years, this rule has obviously been rescinded and the back-to-back cameos I just saw is ample evidence to prove that.

While one can see the linkage between MSNBC and Battleship (both NBCUniversal and Universal Studios are subsidiaries within the overarching Comcast media conglomerate), that network has no connection with the Walt Disney Company, the parent company of Walt Disney Pictures.  Since Disney's own ABC News has no presence in the cable news arena, I'm guessing they held out these plum product placements for the highest bidders and MSNBC and CNN (along with other Time Warner news outlets) took the opportunity to be featured in this summer's--and perhaps 2012's--biggest grossing film.

Some on the right side of US politics are not happy with this omission; however, Fox News' parent company wasn't totally shut out for attention on the big screen.  News Corporation has a minority ownership in Sky News, the British satellite news broadcaster, and, if my memory serves me right, I do remember seeing a short clip featuring an announcer from that outlet during Battleship.   Since that movie was expected to do better in overseas markets than in US theaters (as of this posting, it is earning $4 outside the United States for every $1 inside), featuring a non-American brand instead of the over-the top red, white, and blue of the Fox News logo and screen graphics was probably the better option for Rupert Murdoch to take for a primarily non-American audience. 

But why no Fox News?  Perhaps the answer lies in that President Obama and/or members of his administration are featured in the news clips.  Since we (SPOILER ALERT!!!) do repel the attackers in both films, Fox News reporters and anchors might've been faced with the unthinkable possibility of actually defending the current president and his policies--an anathema to their core constituency of conservative-leaning viewers and wealthy political donors.  Or, for the sake of realism, they would be depicted rooting for the aliens and Asgardian invaders to ensure that Obama failed (at least on the silver screen) only to be proven wrong yet again in that prediction.

Or maybe I'm just overlooking the most obvious reason--Murdoch just assumed that none of that channel's senior citizen viewers, like himself, would be up late enough to attend any of the midnight opening events.

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