The Media Monopolies

Everyone knows there are rules about how much media a few men can control. And in the wake of the recent Time Warner-Turner merger, federal antitrust authorities promise to review those rules to ensure that the $7.4 billion deal is perfectly legal. One federal official told the Washington Post that even if the new conglomerate is legal, the merger "might be challenged because it presents too much control over public opinion and speech." But anti-monopoly activists aren't holding their breath for the deal to fall through. One reason the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) might want to take a closer look at the merger is because John Malone, the CEO of Tele-Communications, Inc., the country's largest cable company, now has a 9 percent stake in Time Warner. "Any deal that has John Malone in it--everyone looks at it," says Professor Henry Geller, a communications expert at Duke University. That's because Malone isn't just one of the industry's most powerful players--he's also one of its most notorious. In 1993, he drove down the price of the Learning Channel by threatening to limit its distribution on TCI's cable system. Within four months, the Learning Channel's price had plummeted 25 percent. The Discovery Channel, partly owned by Malone, snapped it up at a bargain rate. A second reason the FCC might want to take a closer look at this merger is that Malone's TCI and Time Warner serve close to half of the 61 million U.S. households that subscribe to cable. FCC regulations now prohibit individual cable companies from providing service to more than 30 percent of households. But this could change dramatically if the new industry-friendly telecommunications bill, which loosens these restrictions, becomes law. For media consumers, says news analyst and syndicated columnist Norman Solomon, the resulting consolidation of control will result in "more illusion of choice but more reality of homogenization of mass media" and in a narrowing of the range of cultural and political programming available to viewers. This is the kind of "classic monopoly behavior" we can now expect more of, says Solomon. Only 50 years ago, the Justice Department sued the movie industry to keep the companies that produce movies separate from those that exhibit them. But nowadays, such anti-monopoly sentiment is hard to find. Says Geller: "The Reagan and Bush administrations actively encouraged these consolidations." (And more recently, the Republican-controlled Congress has revived the laissez-faire attitude of the '80s.) Given the government's kid-gloves treatment of recent mergers, Time Warner is not particularly worried. As today's savvy media watchers know, antitrust police have lost their aggressive instinct. Just wait until CNN starts running features plugging Warner Bros.' latest movies.

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