I recently read an interview in Multinational Monitor Magazine with former FCC chairman Nicholas Johnson, in which he considered a bit of media history. Years ago, when Time Inc. merged with Warner Brothers, company executives were asked why they were merging. They said that before long, there would be only five companies that control all the media on our planet, and that they intended to be one of them.
Well, it looks like they are making even more progress in working toward that goal, as they just acquired Turner Broadcasting (CNN, TBS, etc.). Just a few weeks earlier, Disney and ABC merged. It looks like they want to be one of the five as well. Although this type of concentration of power is concerning in any industry, it is of grave concern in the communications industry.
Most people get most of their information from television. If only five companies control TV, then we have just five viewpoints. The views from these large institutions is very different from the views of a mid-sized company, a small company or an individual. Large corporations have unique conditions and pressures that skew their perspective as to what type of messages that they’d like to distribute. A documentary, for example, that reveals “The Alarming Trend of Media Concentration” is unlikely to get distributed. Programs for children may seem less attractive to advertisers, especially when compared to programs full of sex and/or violence. These latter shows tend to draw large audiences of adults with disposable income, making excellent target audiences for major advertisers.
In essence, these corporations must put their interests first and everything else second. The corporate board of directors could be violating its fiduciary responsibilities by choosing any course of action that did not lead to profits.
The free flow of information is a fundamental component of a democracy. The first amendment guarantees each American the right to free speech and freedom of the press. But free expression for all citizens is not necessarily conducive to profit making. If a large corporation can choose between allowing others to express their point of view (by way of leasing out their delivery services for distribution of a TV program) or reaping greater advertising profit from their own program, the outcome should be obvious. Therein lies the crux of the problem. So we must look to a regulatory solution to this dilemma.
By the time you read this, the most complete rewrite of telecommunications law since 1934 is close to being passed by Congress. The bill strikes down restrictions on media ownership and thus encourages empires to get bigger. Vice President Al Gore recently gave the strongest indication yet that President Clinton has not changed his mind about vetoing the new telecommunication legislation. Gore criticized the pending telecom bill saying, “Instead of diversity, there is monopoly.” Of the House bill, Gore said, “Instead of promoting investment and competition, it promotes mergers and the concentration of power. Instead of promoting open access and diversity of content and viewpoints, it would allow fewer people to control greater numbers of television, radio and newspaper outlets in every community.”
In fact, this concentration of power was pondered at the onset of the TV industry. When Congress drafted the Communications Act of 1934, one Congressman said, “If we should ever allow such a potentially powerful medium to fall into the hands of the few, then woe be to those who would dare to disagree with them.”
Unfortunately, few people in the government are paying close attention to what is at stake. Congressman Edward Markey of Massachusetts is one of the few. He gave a speech in which he said that media diversity should guarantee “that there is a multitude of ‘media tongues’ that can speak, that you don’t have to work for the biggest and most powerful companies, or be a certain kind of person to get access. That the smallest voices, those articulating creative ideas, those with information to communicate, have access to the telecommunications network. That they can be free and strong and separate from the larger voice that may want to be more monopolistic and drown them out, and that localism can be, in fact, fostered through this network. That it’s not just a couple of voices coming from New York or LA, but voices all across the country that can use the telecommunications system…. The power of communications is the power to help us learn more about the world and to bridge the gaps that separate our differences.”
Many of our readers hope to be able to express themselves through video on the information superhighway, while others may not. All of us, however, should be concerned about how many or how few viewpoints flow into our homes through the TV set. Write your Congressman today and support “open access.”
Matt York is Videomaker‘s publisher/editor.