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Rupert Murdoch's Digital Death Star

Murdoch's plans to buy DirecTV will open the door to a not-so-distant future when our television set will become an outpost of the Murdoch empire.
 
 
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Even as Michael Powell and the GOP sweep away long-standing media ownership safeguards, media mogul Rupert Murdoch is mobilizing to further expand his TV empire beyond broadcast and cable. His plans to acquire the key direct broadcast satellite service (DBS) – DirecTV – will allow Murdoch to advance his conservative political agenda, creating new channels and services that disseminate the rightwing ideology now espoused by Fox News.

News Corp. wants to buy Hughes Electronics – the parent company of DirecTV – from General Motors. If the deal is allowed to go through, Murdoch will have a triple play when it comes to influencing U.S. television with his control of broadcast, cable and satellite channels. His News Corp now owns 35 broadcast TV stations and significant cable channels like Fox News, Fox Sports and even National Geographic TV. Add to that DirecTV's 11 million subscribers and Murdoch will be able to greatly shape broadcast and new digital television services. While both the U.S. Department of Justice and the FCC have to approve the deal, don't expect any significant opposition. GOP lawmakers in the House practically fell on their knees when Murdoch testified about the proposed buyout recently. And why not! Fox News essentially provides a 24/7 campaign contribution to the Bush White House.

The need to oppose the DirecTV acquisition is urgent. Contrary to his promises, Murdoch will use DirecTV as a "death star" to force his programming on cable companies by threatening a price war unless they give Fox favorable access. Since News Corp will control cable TV's principal multichannel competitor, it will easily create new channels – unlike anyone else in the TV business. Rather than engage in open combat and competition, cable powerbrokers such as Comcast and AOL-Time Warner will likely accommodate Murdoch and add his new channels to their own services. Imagine Fox News on steroids. Worse, with DirecTV's capacity to "spotbeam" channels to serve distinct communities, localized versions of Fox programs could be available in major cities across the nation.

The purchase of DirecTV will also enhance Murdoch's existing clout in the U.S. media market. First, News Corp. has already secured key technologies that will act as a virtual tollbooth for the emerging digital TV marketplace. For example, News Corp. subsidiary Gemstar , better known as TV Guide onscreen, allows it to influence viewer programming choices though its control of the key electronic program guide. Murdoch's NDS service , which provides set-top box software, will expand their clout into new broadband digital applications.

Finally, Murdoch's acquisition of DirecTV, as noted in News Corp.'s "public interest" filing at the FCC will greatly expand its global power. The document openly touts the "efficiencies" of the merger, since Murdoch already controls key satellite TV systems serving Europe and Asia. The U.S. deal will cap a long-standing quest by Murdoch to add this country's market to his immense media empire, and further his political influence all across the globe (for a link to his holdings and other information, go to the Center for Digital Democracy.)

Murdoch's determination to add a U.S. satellite service to News Corp's holdings was reflected in his campaign to defeat the takeover of DirecTV by its smaller DBS rival Echostar. Although the DOJ was correct in nixing the deal (for it would have merged the only two competitors), Murdoch scuttled the merger by orchestrating a political campaign hatched at the News Corp.'s offices (as reported by the Wall Street Journal and others).

The FCC is now taking comments on the merger. The official deadline to register formal opposition to the deal is June 16th. But critics and others will be able to weigh in – whether through congressional pressure or other means – through the late fall, when approval is expected. Murdoch has already promised not to discriminate against potential program competitors, such as Disney/ABC, GE/NBC, and Viacom/CBS, preempting any serious resistance from the heavy hitters.

Ideally, the merger should be denied, but such is the state of competition policy and anti-trust rules (let alone political corruption) that there is little likelihood for an outright rejection. But opposition is essential, covering a number of fronts, to develop some federally imposed safeguards on the deal. For example, Murdoch must be denied full control of the channel capacity of DirecTV. For groups left out of TV – including progressives, persons of color (there are no channels owned by African Americans, for example), women, nonprofits, and labor – this may be the time to seriously consider weighing in. Channels and bandwidth must be made available across the commercial and non-commercial spectrum. The union movement may have some influence in the battle, as GM-related pension funds will own 20 percent of the Murdoch-run DirecTV venture.

Furthermore, the new technologies under Murdoch's control, such as his electronic guides, also must be disarmed, permitting emerging and competitive programming services to flourish. Key Murdoch investor John Malone (another politically conservative media mogul) must be denied any influence as well.

But for any checks on Murdoch's DirecTV deal to be put in place, a strong and vociferous protest is necessary. If the U.S. (and the world) is to be protected from Mr. Murdoch's political agenda, the time to act is now.

Jeff Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.