James Gunn, Roseanne expose media giants' vulnerabilities

Disney and Comcast have been on an acquisition hunt, motivated by the belief that media companies need to get bigger ...

Posted: Jul. 23, 2018 6:37 PM
Updated: Jul. 23, 2018 6:37 PM

Disney and Comcast have been on an acquisition hunt, motivated by the belief that media companies need to get bigger to gain the leverage needed to compete with the likes of Netflix, Amazon and other deep-pocketed players, including those in Silicon Valley.

Yet as talent running the ideological gamut from Roseanne Barr to director James Gunn have learned, being employed by a media giant also has a perilous side, as the size that comes with owning so much content can expose pressure points, creating soft underbellies and glass jaws.

In the case of the Walt Disney Co., which owns ABC (which aired "Roseanne") and Marvel (which produces the "Guardians of the Galaxy" movies that Gunn directed), negative publicity related to the social-media accounts of Barr and more recently Gunn prompted the company to sever ties with them.

Simply put, the bottom-line benefit wasn't deemed worth the headaches when presented with statements that ran counter to Disney's values, especially for such an image-conscious entity.

From that perspective, these companies' far-flung holdings actually work against talent's ability to weather scandals. While smaller entities would have to swallow hard at the prospect of losing their top-rated TV show, or firing a director responsible for two movies that earned more than $1.6 billion, for Disney, those kinds of decisions might hurt, but in the bigger scheme of things, they represent costs of doing business that the company is able to fairly easily absorb.

Disney, of course, isn't alone in having to address potentially thorny matters. Comcast and WarnerMedia, now a part of AT&T, have both dealt with scandals at various times regarding NBC News and CNN, respectively. TBS also publicly disavowed "vile and inappropriate" language by host Samantha Bee, after she directed an expletive at Ivanka Trump on her show "Full Frontal." (TBS and CNN share parent company WarnerMedia.)

Activists, both on the left and right, have also become savvier about connecting the dots, applying pressure in a way that goes beyond a particular star or even the unit that directly employs him or her, registering their displeasure with the larger corporation.

While the bark in those cases is frequently worse than the bite, it can be enough to make these companies take action, as Disney did in the case of Gunn, issuing a statement that labeled his decade-old tweets "indefensible."

Even many media personalities, notably, have adopted a variation of this strategy. For example, high-profile producers employed by 21st Century Fox -- including "Modern Family's" Steve Levitan and "Family Guy's" Seth MacFarlane -- said they were questioning their involvement with the company, citing the fact that they were "disgusted," in MacFarlane's words, with Fox News Channel.

The perception that media companies are more sensitized to criticism has only emboldened critics, who are quick with charges of hypocrisy when one personality is penalized and another isn't. While companies have been accused of being too quick to dismiss or gloss over such situations in the past, some are now wondering -- depending on where their allegiances lie -- if they are reacting too rashly, producing a petition in support of Gunn, who has expressed regret and contrition for his postings.

In that statement, Gunn also said, "I understand and accept the business decisions taken today."

Although Barr has waffled a bit in her comments after initially supporting Disney, the director appeared to be acknowledging that in today's climate, there are potential ramifications for embarrassing the boss -- or really, given the nature of these modern media conglomerates, the boss's boss's boss.

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