How Pat O'Brien's problem became a Viacom cross-platform bonanza

This month's Pat O'Brien-blabs-to-Dr. Phil extravaganza deepened television's brand as the planet's most self-serving medium. Airing in prime time, the CBS hour should have carried a “CP” content rating, for cross-promotion—more accurately, crass promotion.

Like chest-puffing politicians who perpetually run for office, ABC, CBS and NBC constantly devise promotional strategies to compete with each other and meet the exploding challenges of cable, videos and the Internet. This does not mean, however, that these broadcast blowhards and their corporate parents have stopped selling themselves to viewers the old-fashioned sleazy way during May and other ratings-sweeps periods.

Cross-promotion remains an itch that won't go away, a spreading fungus tolerated by viewers because they are either blind to its deception or desensitized. Perhaps both. I've written about cross-promotion frequently through the years, initially hearing outrage from viewers who joined me in accusing the perpetrators of gross impropriety, even dishonesty. More recently, that crescendo of resistance has lowered to an almost inaudible hum. Instead of outrage, I hear, “Oh, well, that's television.” In other words, the longer something sticks around, however unpleasant, the more accepting of it we become.

In cross-promotion, we get a form of product placement with promos woven through the fabric of programs—insulating them from being TiVo-zapped—much as ads were in the early days of TV. At times, the shows themselves are ads.

Take the O'Brien/Dr. Tough Love orgy of self-interest and its supporting cast of Viacom androids. Take it and shove it.

The scenario had O'Brien, host of The Insider, hemorrhaging his tale of boozy woe to daytime star Dr. Phil McGraw. Who benefited most? Corporate colossus Viacom, of course. The Insider and the Dr. Phil daytime series are from Paramount Television, which along with CBS is owned by Viacom. This Viacom ménage a trois spilled onto the next day, moreover, when O'Brien appeared on the daytime Dr. Phil before rejoining The Insider that night after being away for alcohol rehab.

There's an upside here. Until enlightenment intervened late last century, the funny drunk was one of entertainment TV's most reliable punch lines, from boozy Crazy Guggenheim crooning to Jackie Gleason's Joe the Bartender to a barstool's becoming a permanent appendage to Norm Peterson in Cheers. No one wondered how good old Norm was able to get home with all those beers in his tank.

So it's healthy when a recovering alcoholic like O'Brien publicly seeks redemption, on TV no less, without trivializing his addiction or going for laughs.

Not that it will necessarily end here. I sniff a book, too, with O'Brien perhaps extending his synergistic odyssey across a memoir, courtesy of another Viacom subsidiary, Simon & Schuster. And then, the CBS movie.

Regardless of their billing, O'Brien and McGraw are essentially entertainers. Even more egregious are journalists who cross-promote, exposing their tawdry ethics like flashers.

An example? Barbara Walters, her credibility in free fall despite being universally bronzed as the Mother Teresa of News, somehow found the words to ruminate on ABC's The View about that evening's overcooked Primetime Live exposé of an alleged scandal on Fox's American Idol.

Elsewhere in prime time, Everyone Loves Raymond is a hugely popular CBS comedy whose exit has drawn wide coverage. So 60 Minutes may earn the benefit of the doubt regarding its big splash on star Ray Romano and his show two Sundays before its finale. But you have to be suspicious.

Network morning shows practice this incestuous hype relentlessly despite operating under the aegis of their respective news divisions. On ABC's Good Morning America, co-host Charles Gibson—his own credibility now overlapping that of World News Tonight, where he is one of those subbing for ailing anchor Peter Jennings—was at his stoniest while interviewing women from Love Behind Bars. It aired that night on cable's E! network, a big chunk of which is which is owned by ABC corporate parent Disney.

Meanwhile, bounced Survivor contestants remain a staple of mummified CBS' The Early Show, which naturally covered O'Brien/Dr. Phil as epic news, too. That included Julie Chen's advance chat with McGraw (“Did you tiptoe around some of your questions?”) and an exclusive morning quickie with O'Brien.

Co-host Harry Smith was memorable the same morning, hand stroking chin while impersonating a thoughtful questioner (“What did you in?”) when debriefing two competitors ousted from the network's Amazing Race. Smith knows the series intimately: He and Early Show weatherman Dave Price were contestants on it last year.

Toady interviews that serve the network are a dirty job, but they don't pay Smith the big bucks for nothing, evidenced by his mastery in 2003 when grilling his boss, CBS Chairman Les Moonves in advance of the network's 75th anniversary special. Brutally pressed by Smith, Moonves confessed that, yes, he had, indeed, returned “luster” to CBS.

Local newscasters are especially prone to cross-promotion. KCBS Los Angeles ran a promo with Paul Magers, its top news anchor, touting the network's Elvis miniseries. Then, on the evening it premiered, came this teaser from Magers, tying Elvis to the station's 11 p.m. newscast: “The story you'll see only here: I'll take you to Elvis Presley's favorite hangouts in Los Angeles.” And they call this news?

I'd call it deceptive cross-promotion.