The recent decision by the federal appeals court in Washington to relax television ownership limitations has been praised by the networks and condemned by consumer advocates. Once again in the continuing debate about media deregulation, the lines have been drawn between corporate power and the public interest. Once again the public interest has lost.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was designed to be a means by which media companies could remain competitive in a new multimedia economy dominated by large conglomerates. But if the 1996 act encouraged economic competitiveness across industries, it clearly stifled competition in the marketplace of ideas by reducing the number of owners and thus consolidating, centralizing and homogenizing formerly disparate voices.
The effects have been most dramatic in the radio industry, which was all but completely deregulated in 1996. Since then, there have been more than 10,000 radio station transactions worth more than $100 billion, and there are now at least 1,100 fewer station owners than before -- a decline of nearly 30 percent in six years.
The result is that in almost half the largest markets, the three largest companies control 80 percent of the radio audience. Today, as the remaining vestiges of television regulation preserved by the 1996 act are finally stripped away, a new wave of merger mania, this time among television networks and stations, is a foregone conclusion.
From the point of view of economic competition, the easing of ownership caps and the lifting of cross-media ownership rules are positive, creating opportunities for growth and profit. As corporate parents increasingly control not only mass media content (television, movies, newspapers, magazines, books, etc.) but also the national delivery systems for that content (networks, cable, satellite and telephone systems), they gain financial leverage, increase returns and expand control over their properties, fully monetizing them from conception to reception.
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