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Policy

Critic: Media Caps Obsolete

5/08/2005 8:00 PM Eastern

Concerns about media consolidation are based on myths, said a new report commissioned by the New Millenium Research Council, adding that U.S. programming choices have not narrowed as media conglomerates have grown.

The report, released May 4 and discussed on a conference call, represents the opinions of Massachusetts Institute of Technology media consultant Benjamin Compaine, who’s authored multiple books on media issues. He asserts that such things as ownership caps are “horse and buggy” methods for regulating media companies and don’t reflect the current marketplace.

CONTRARIAN VIEW

Critics of media consolidation — such as University of Pennsylvania law professor C. Edwin Baker, who recently testified before Congress on this issue — have argued concentration at any level creates the possibility that an individual decision-maker can exercise “enormous, unchecked, undemocratic, essentially irresponsible power.”

The conglomerates are profit-driven, so expensive content such as investigative journalism and other types of public-interest programming could disappear, critics have said.

But Compaine, who also testified at that hearing, said in his report that policymakers might be concentrating on the wrong issues when they look at the size of companies or the number of eyeballs that watch local programming. Instead, he contended, they should look at the wider range of programming options now available.

Internet-based and other digital forms of media will overwhelm traditional content-ownership issues, he said, because two-thirds of Americans now get video streaming and information online. The online Drudge Report (www.drudgereport.com) gets more hits in a week than Time has weekly readers, he said.

In broadcast and cable television, Compaine said, it’s been asserted that five companies — Viacom Inc., The Walt Disney Co., NBC Universal, Time Warner Inc. and News Corp. — control 80% of broadcast and cable networks currently available. Those five companies and all their broadcast and cable networks combined today account for a smaller prime time market share than the average 56% rating the three old networks held in the 1970s.

At that time, ABC, NBC and CBS collectively had Nielsen Media Research ratings in the 50s, but in 2003 ratings for the onetime “Big Three” were at about a 26.

BIG FIRMS ADD CHOICES

In some markets, big media companies are actually the ones driving greater programming choice, Compaine said, noting that Time Warner Cable and broadcasters Hearst Corp. and Belo Corp. have been the most aggressive developers of local all-news networks such as Time Warner Cable’s New York 1 News.

Media consolidation will be an issue as authorities vet the Time Warner Cable - Comcast Corp. purchase of Adelphia Communications Inc. Though a court ruling struck down system ownership caps, Comcast executives have stated that the acquisition, and systems swaps with Time Warner, will keep Comcast below what had formerly been a 30% market share cap.

The New Millennium Research Council describes itself as a network of policy experts who develop “real-world solutions to current policy issues.”

Participating experts and scholars include former Federal Communications Commissioners, past state utility regulators and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.

 

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