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What Technology Giveth, Mergers of Media Taketh Away

Consolidation is constricting access and diversity.

June 27, 2002|NORMAN HOROWITZ | Norman Horowitz is a media consultant and former president of Columbia Pictures Television Worldwide Distribution, Polygram Television and MGM/UA Telecommunications, as well as a former CBS/Viacom executive.

Looking back on our nation's history, it seemed reasonable to have regulations that prevented a concentration of media ownership. It made sense that if you owned a newspaper in a market, you should have been precluded from owning a radio or television station in that same market.

These cross-ownership restrictions prevented a single voice from dominating the distribution of information and entertainment in a market.

Diversity of ownership creates opportunities for diversity of content. Concentration of ownership has historically led to a reduction in creativity because, when that's the case, content control rests in the hands of a few.

The Federal Communications Commission has said it is interested in "encouraging diversity and competition in the media."

So how could further consolidation--such as Viacom swallowing all of NBC--possibly result in diversity or competition?

Certainly the passage of time and the miracles of technology have given many voices the opportunity to be heard in each market. Sadly, some of the voices are considerably louder than others.

Though the latest technology does offer new opportunities to supply news, information and entertainment to Americans, free access to these systems is being throttled by such conglomerates as Walt Disney/ABC; News Corp./Fox; General Electric/NBC/CNBC/MSNBC; Viacom/CBS-UPN; and AOL/Time Warner/CNN/WB.

Given the apparent popularity of corporate piggybacking, it is unlikely that delivery systems and program services will experience a greater diversity of ownership in the near term.

Having already allowed an incredible consolidation of power in the over-the-air delivery services, the FCC is sailing full speed ahead to remove regulatory impediments that prevent further consolidation of the broadcast industry. The FCC also is looking to eliminate cross-ownership restrictions.

One would think it self-evident that a single company--let's say Viacom--should not own three over-the-air broadcast networks, not to mention an unlimited number of radio stations throughout the country, plus newspapers in the cities serviced by its cable and satellite networks.

I'd really like to hear FCC Chairman Michael Powell explain to the nation why such consolidation is beneficial to the interests of Americans who are not shareholders of these giant companies.

Does Powell believe that program diversity can emanate from these vertically and horizontally integrated corporations?

Does he believe that these consolidations will encourage valid criticism of our government as it pursues activities that an independent media might not think are in the best interest of its citizens?

The American media have grown under the control of a politically motivated regulatory process. What we have done under the battle cry of deregulation is to concentrate the power of the media into the hands of a very few.

Network executives testified before the FCC that if the regulations covering financial interest and syndication were removed, they would not attempt to control prime-time programming scheduled by their network.

Did they do what they promised? No, they acted in their own self-interest and in a manner contrary to their promises to the FCC. This is what networks do and have always done.

Our country should not give media moguls more power and influence than they already have.

Other voices should be heard along with these existing powerhouses.

Governmental decisions regarding the media should be governed by the public interest, not corporate interest.

One solution would be for the FCC to at least maintain current media regulations until, say, 2020, to allow the competitive conditions to level out. This might not suit the interests of Michael Eisner, Rupert Murdoch, Bob Wright, Steve Case or Sumner Redstone. But it might just suit the best interests of the citizens of the U.S. of A.

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