The media produce content that is widely consumed, as well as alternately loved and loathed. Yet as a business, its inner workings are poorly understood by the public, which spends so much free time with the product. It’s a disconnect that’s allowed media policy through the years to be set by small numbers of people operating in a virtual vacuum.
Another major chapter in media is being written, but the latest multibillion-dollar chess match is playing out at a level that surely confounds the average person. With a spate of huge mergers that promise to reshape content distribution, the key regulatory issues being adjudicated can sound like a made-up language. Hell, if anecdotal evidence is any guide, even those who work in the industry would struggle to identify “net neutrality” on a multiple-choice test, without phoning a friend.
CNN recently suggested it can’t figure out how to get its audience interested in hearing about climate change, never mind explaining the more arcane concerns surrounding whether or not Internet gatekeepers might abuse their power. And good luck trying to parse the details regarding the ambitions of Comcast and AT&T, seeking permission to expand their holdings through unions with Time Warner Cable and DirecTV, respectively, in deals totaling more than $90 billion.
From a historical perspective, the collective yawn emanating from the public sounds like something with which the TV industry should be familiar — namely, a rerun. That’s because in the 1990s, two major shifts were pushed through the federal government, each with dramatic business consequences but marginal public awareness, despite efforts to rally opposition.
First, the government eliminated the financial interest and syndication rules, which, among other things, cleared the way for the studio and network combinations that followed, yielding vertical integration and creating massive companies that have produced and owned more of the programs they exhibit, at the expense of independent suppliers.
Similarly, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 enabled television and radio station ownership to become vastly more concentrated, letting a handful of key players gain inordinate control over the public airwaves.
A lot has changed since then, in dizzying and unimaginable ways, and those changes have inspired defenders of big business to argue that the naysaying is just more Chicken Little-style cackling from the usual suspects.
Hence, Wall Street Journal columnist Holman W. Jenkins Jr. wrote that advocacy groups sounding alarms about the dangers of telecom consolidation “always say the same thing,” which is that “any move by these big-is-bad companies to adapt to their changing environment must be quashed.”
As if on cue, the New York Times lent its voice to the anti-merger chorus, urging regulators to challenge the Comcast-Time Warner deal on anti-competitive grounds, editorializing that uniting these major players in corporate matrimony will create a “colossus the likes of which the country has not seen” since the breakup of AT&T 30 years ago.
No matter the perspective, the issue here isn’t who ultimately will be proved right — although it’s fair to say that many misgivings regarding the demise of fin-syn turned out to be accurate — but rather that the vast majority of people have no voice in this discussion, and scarcely a clue as to how it might impact them.
At least one pro-merger point also sounds especially bogus: The suggestion that these companies must bulk up in order to innovate, and better serve consumers. One needn’t be a cynic to conclude the media oligarchs as presently constituted are already plenty big, inviting skepticism about what Comcast/Time Warner can implement together that they couldn’t accomplish apart.
There’s no question the media environment is changing, and no one need argue about whether the rising consolidation tide is man-made. But as with climate change, the fear is that by the time the few who grasp the implications can sort out the potential damage, it will probably be too late to undo.