Is it possible Norman Lear is wrong?
For that matter, could the likes of Tom Fontana, Barry Diller and Ted Turner also have misjudged the issue?
All four men, in one form or another, have come out against the FCC’s decision last week to loosen some of the key rules governing the regulation of broadcast television.
A common theme in their dissent has been a fear that allowing congloms to own more TV stations, or to own both a newspaper and a TV station in the same city, will kill off whatever independent voices are left in television.
The result, they say, will be increasingly bland television programming, produced by just a few people.
Their fears, however well-intentioned, aren’t based in fact.
It’s one thing to argue congloms are getting too big and too powerful.
There’s plenty of evidence to suggest arrogance bred by size has led to countless dumb decisions by execs at all levels.
The disaster that was the AOL-Time Warner merger, or the painful transformation of ABC into the Almost Broadcasting Co., demonstrate that corporate IQ doesn’t increase with each acquisition.
But despite the lofty rhetoric from opponents, last week’s action by the FCC really won’t radically overhaul the media landscape. Yes, the big will get bigger — but only incrementally.
Some newspaper chains will add more TV stations to their portfolios, but with most people under 30 getting their news from the Internet or cable, what’s the big deal?
(And most local TV stations would benefit by having some ink-stained wretches mingle more frequently with their blow-dried brethren in broadcasting.)
The Big Four will be able to own more of their own stations, but not many more. With the ownership cap rising from 35% to 45%, it’s not as if the new rules will wipe out local affiliates or smaller station groups overnight.
Some mid- and small-level players in the station group business will suffer or possibly disappear. But why should the TV biz be any different from the rest of corporate America?
Any time a fast-food upstart like Boston Market or Chipotle shows signs of gaining traction, McDonald’s or one of its rivals swoops in to buy it. A small handful of grocery congloms owns most of the supermarkets in the country, yet the vegetables are still fresh.
Dereg critics scoff at comparing broadcasting to selling burgers, arguing the Big Six should be more heavily regulated because they use the public airwaves.
Well, cell phone carriers operate on public airwaves, but nobody expects them to air three hours of semi-educational conversations each week.
What’s more, in an era marked by hundreds of cable channels and broadband Internet connections, it no longer makes sense to impose the same old Divine burdens of public responsibility on broadcasters — and nobody else.
Turner rightfully takes credit for revolutionizing the news business, but his empire was also built on cable channels like TBS Superstation which air a heavy diet of sitcom repeats and B-movies– and have zero obligation to serve the public interest.
The midlevel station owners decrying the FCC’s actions, meanwhile, are often painted as heroic champions of the little guy, ensuring diversity and choice for consumers.
That argument would hold more water if those same station owners hadn’t years ago eliminated virtually all locally produced entertainment or magazine shows in favor of more lucrative syndicated sitcom repeats and turned most local newscasts into tabloid affairs containing just a few morsels of actual information.
Finally, for those who believe conglom growth spells the end of creativity, how to explain shows like “24,” “The West Wing” or “Everybody Loves Raymond”? All managed to find their way onto free, over-the-air TV despite the fact their creators all work for huge companies like AOL-Time Warner, News Corp. or Viacom.
Creators like Aaron Sorkin might not be able to build the one-man empires folks like Lear or Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner established. But it’s not like they’ll go broke, either.
There’s a legitimate debate to be had over whether media companies have become too big. For that matter, it’s worth having discussions about the impact of deregulation on all sorts of industries, from telecom to airlines.
But first, a simple truth needs to be acknowledged: However inept FCC chairman Michael Powell may be as a politician — and the general’s son did a horrible job selling his war plan — the actions the FCC took last week don’t signal the coming of a media Apocalypse.