Committee Of Correspondence

Are Media Conglomerates Bad for Us?

Herb Stein
9:06 a.m.  Friday  10/18/96 

       Effective democracy requires that the public should have available many independent sources of information. Recent technological developments, such as multi-channel cable television and the Internet, hold the promise of greatly increasing the number of independent information sources available. Now concern is being expressed whether this promise will be obstructed by economic developments–that is, by a few large corporations acquiring control of a large number of information sources that would otherwise be independent. The names of many of these corporations are well-known, including Time-Warner/Turner Broadcasting, TCI, Viacom, Disney/Capital Cities, News Corporation (an enterprise of Rupert Murdoch), and several others. As the Internet becomes an increasing source of information, computer companies–such as Microsoft–have joined the list. Most of these corporations are conglomerates, with large roles in many kinds of information distribution and in many kinds of information production. Time-Warner, for example, controls not only a large proportion of the cable TV channels in the country but is big in magazine publishing, book publishing, and motion picture production as well.
       The question whether these economic developments are a threat to the public interest is highlighted by the situation that has emerged in New York City. Time-Warner has an exclusive franchise to provide cable service in Manhattan and controls what goes on its cable channels (except for a handful of channels reserved for use by the city of New York). Two of these channels now carry news programs, one provided by CNN (a division of Turner Broadcasting that is now part of Time-Warner) and the other provided by MSNBC (a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC). Time-Warner has declined to make a channel available for Fox News. Some claim that Time-Warner is arbitrarily using the monopoly given it by the city to deprive residents of a news source they should have.
       This panel is not intended to concentrate on the case of Time-Warner vs. Fox. I only refer to it as an illustration of one question that is raised by the expansion of media conglomerates. Is this development depriving the public of independent sources of information it ought to have? Aside from the question of information, are opportunities for the distribution–and therefore the creation–of artistic and entertainment products being unduly limited? There is also another question, not entirely unrelated: Are these conglomerations–especially the ones which involve the integration of media distributors (like cable systems) with content providers (like CNN)–efficient from the standpoint of investors in them and, indirectly, from the standpoint of the national economy?