Monday, March 9, 2009

Merger Madness

Part Four of The Great Free Speech Robbery

At a "public interest" summit in 1994, representatives from government, corporations and public interest groups assessed the emerging shape of what was then being called the National Information Infrastructure, or NII. Among the questions they asked, but didn't fully answer, at that gathering were the following: Who will build it? Who will pay for it? And who will be left out?

Although some participants were optimistic about the prospects for education and virtually universal access, others warned about "information apartheid," the further division of the US (and the world) into haves and have nots. Within a few years, this became known as the "digital divide," a euphemism as useful to the media establishment as "collateral damage" has been to the military. Legislation to prohibit "electronic redlining," and to reserve a portion of the space on advanced telecommunications networks for non-commercial uses, was in the pipeline. But it was also fairly clear that the evolution of new technologies would likely be dominated by the same players who already owned the nation's communication systems.

Rumblings about a new round of media mergers meanwhile provided a glimpse into the future. It looked more than possible that one or more of the three major TV networks in the US would soon change hands. General Electric already owned NBC and its cable spin-offs; had investments in Bravo, AMC, and even the Independent Film Channel; and was a major partner in the PrimeStar satellite operation. Now Time-Warner, already one of the world's largest media empires, as well as Viacom and the Walt Disney Co. were looking to purchase a network. Before long Disney bought ABC, and Viacom made its play for CBS.

In May 2000, regulators approved the Viacom-CBS merger, a $45 billion deal involving 38 TV stations, 162 radio stations, as well as movie studios, book publishing, themes parks, and the MTV and Nickolodeon cable channels. Since the new company's TV stations would reach over 40 percent of the national audience, more than federal rules allowed, the FCC gave the company time to scale down its holdings to meet a 35 percent cap. It also faced the prospect of giving up Viacom-owned UPN, since media entities weren't permitted to own two networks. But the FCC agreed to review the dual network ban, since Viacom claimed UPN would falter without a powerful parent corporation.

As Dennis Mazzocca noted in Networks of Power, deregulation of cable television, combined with more programming and distribution partnerships, meant that all of cable television would soon be controlled by the same media conglomerates that dominated broadcasting. In the early 1990s, fewer than 20 players ran mass communication worldwide; by 2000 that number was down to less than ten.

With the emergence of the "information superhighway," these same interests vied with telephone companies for access to an enormous new market. Clearly, cable TV, telephone systems and computer networks would soon look very different. Whether phone companies would even be subject to public access requirements wasn't yet clear. On a "superhighway" built by AT&T, Time-Warner/AOL, Viacom, Sony, GE, Rupert Murdoch and Sprint, the options would be severely limited by the political biases and market mentality of the info-media behemoths.

Corporate media critics have suggested using community-based pressure as a lever to bring the media under public control through non-profit, public foundations. Another approach is to charge operators for their access to the airways – a usage fee based on net profits, which could be used in part to establish a viable alternative. Advertisers might also be taxed to pay for services, public broadcasting or access channels, as in Hawaii, New Mexico and Washington. It also wouldn’t hurt to revitalize anti-trust law, look at corporate divestment of powerful news divisions, and ban children’s advertising.

But the problem can’t be completely solved by throwing up regulatory roadblocks or even demanding money for an "alternative" to corporate media. Manipulation of global consciousness is a profound political, cultural, and technological problem that altruistic alternatives are unlikely to overcome on their own. Even if 20 percent of the space on US telecommunication networks was reserved for government and the public, the remaining 80 percent would be programmed by corporations and polluted with propaganda. Two-way communication may remain affordable, but contact with a larger public will be elusive for all but a clever few.

Next: Paradoxes of the Information Age

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