AS A CONSUMER AND CITIZEN, I’m convinced it’s not a good thing if the roster of media owners contracts until the Sun Valley power conference can be held around a small card table.
As a holder of Tribune Co. stock options, I realize that gutting federal rules constraining such companies potentially works to my advantage. Stripping away regulation increases the likelihood someone will buy the broadcasting/publishing giant or, at the very least, that Tribune will be free to keep and grow its varied assets, creating economies of scale that boost profits and shareholder value.
Welcome to what President Bush refers to as the “ownership society,” as it pertains to the media sector, where the underlying hope is that focusing on what’s good for me will trump what might be better for us in the collective sense.
It’s against this backdrop that Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell’s resignation should be contemplated in the weeks and even four years ahead, not the more titillating (immaturity unavoidable) question of what Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl malfunction hath wrought.
A free-market advocate, Powell reluctantly donned the enforcer hat on behalf of the content police, adopting a softer line than Democratic FCC commissioner Michael Copps. Yet where the two truly diverged was in regard to deregulation, with Powell favoring a pro-business stance and not fretting about allowing the big to get bigger, maintaining that consolidation shouldn’t be a concern so long as the few conglomerate-staffed kitchens provide a wide menu of options.
For reasons that have less to do with insidiousness than laziness, however, news organizations have placed undue emphasis on the unending “culture war,” mostly because it’s a lot sexier (breasts! The f-word!) than arcane debate over duopolies (which sounds too much like a Parker Bros. board game) and how many TV stations Viacom and News Corp. can operate.
NEVERTHELESS, THE MAIN FCC business Powell left unfinished isn’t about stringing together a regulatory brassiere for naughtiness, but rather crafting rules governing who can own what that withstand legal scrutiny and charges of capriciousness. The industry’s challenge, meanwhile, is to weather forces (on both sides of the political aisle) obsessed with content while exploiting the Republicans’ pro-business wing, convincing them the world has less to fear from godless Hollywood smut peddlers than meddlesome Washington bureaucrats.
The clock is ticking for combatants on all sides, since there’s no assurance of another GOP victory in 2008. Moreover, history has shown that once companies merge and entwine, the feds are reluctant to tear them asunder, even if it means guidelines must be gerrymandered to spare media behemoths from disgorging their acquisitions.
In the long run, this could all be good news for Tribune, not-so-good news for America, but still kind-of good news for me. Granted, the whole mess can get pretty confusing, but if the media fixate on distracting cultural fireworks instead of the huge structural issues the FCC must address, then the biggest boobs they’ll see will be staring back at them from the mirror.
THERE’S JOHNNY: Among the footnotes to Johnny Carson’s death Sunday is a little-known fact about who bears ultimate responsibility for placing him on “The Tonight Show.”
According to Grant Tinker, Carson’s champion was Mort Werner, then NBC’s programming chief. Tinker, being wooed by the network in the early 1960s, saw Werner’s notes for his presentation to top brass, which argued that Carson could prosper in latenight despite a spotty TV track record to that point. After all, he reasoned, the same had largely been true of his “Tonight” predecessor, Jack Paar, and the rest, several thousand golf swings later, is history.
On a personal note, in 1997 I began an annual exercise in futility that involved calling Carson’s assistant Helen each spring to ask if he would discuss his anniversary of having vacated latenight.
Helen’s response was always a polite no, until I wrote a column a decade into Carson’s self-imposed exile about his legacy, referencing our one-sided relationship. Days later Carson fired off a note thanking me for the piece, which he closed by saying, “P.S.: Helen is prepared for next year’s request with a similar response.”
Alas, I never got the opportunity to put in a plea for this year, the 13th anniversary of his exit. So I’ll have to wonder how that interview might have gone as I bid the elusive king of latenight a very heartfelt goodnight.