May 09, 2003

As most everyone knows, the FCC voted this week to overturn media ownership regulations that have held sway over the media business for some 50 years.

Admittedly, it is difficult to know exactly whether or not this is something that will be good or bad, as it is always difficult, if not impossible, to predict history.

If the issue of media consolidation is one of good versus bad, I think it is quite clear that in this instance, the FCC's vote is good for media companies, bad for media consumers (this includes agencies who buy time and space as a stock in trade).

It has been evident for quite some time that the ongoing consolidation of media companies, which has been underway for quite some time, actually, was only being slowed by these remaining regulations that have now been reduced to ruins by the current FCC vote (you guys like all that alliteration?). The increasing hegemony of media companies in the market-driven, representative democracies of the English-speaking world has really never been in doubt. Nor has the growing homogeneity of the perspectives sold to advertisers and brought to the public. This was never in more evidence than it was during the recent coverage of the Iraq conflict.

Within moments of a breaking development, all news sources were reporting about not only the same event, but using nearly the exact same language to describe it. Perspectives on those events were also mimicked from one outlet to the other. Perspectives, mind you, that traditionally had been kept to talk shows and op-ed pages and not part and parcel of what used to usually fall out of the mouth of a broadcaster sitting at the big desk.

Tone, mood, language, and point of view are all more and more alike when we look at the current outlets for news and culture. When a particular performer or program or story is "hot," there isn't anywhere one can turn to in the general market place to get away from it. There are two reasons for this: 1) because of a combination of some fuzzy version of game-theory and the greater-fool mentality that seems to reign over how most media outlets work ("someone else is going to cover it, so why not us" + "if we don't cover it, someone else will") and 2) because so many outlets are part of the same corporate structure.

The Internet, however, could stand to gain a great deal by being a place for an alternative voice to the media monoliths that have been, and continue to, consolidate.

More and more people turn to the web as a place not only to find alternative perspectives on the world's events, news, and cultural expressions, but as a place where these same people can publish their own perspectives, news, and cultural expressions.

Proponents of the FCC regulation changes like to point out that Americans have more media options than ever before, what with cable and the internet and all; but what they fail to mention is that most of the major sources in print and in broadcast are owned, in whole or in part, by only a few media conglomerates already.

And I haven't even begun to talk about what this will mean for media buying as a business. You think that the upfront preferences a TV-centric, seller-controlled marketplace now? As Al Jolson said (or Bachman Turner Overdrive), "you ain't seen nothin,' yet." The argument for consolidation back in the day used to be that buyers of media would see greater efficiencies from the advantages of one-stop shopping and cross-media packaging. Anybody else out there choking on their cold pizza when they remember hearing that from media conglomerates back in the 90's? Sellers already have buyers over the barrel most the time (this is, of course, because buyers and their clients are afraid to change the status quo). It will only be much worse now. Buyers will be PRAYING for only 10 or 20% annual CPM increases.

Guess what medium has actually become more stable, financially dependable, and more efficient?

The Internet can certainly serve as yet another place for these conglomerates to create touch points for their audiences. As most of us are already aware, however, it can also be a place for a multitude of rarified audiences to be aggregated and spoken to. In the same way that NPR, PBS, The National Review, or The Nation reach a very specific but highly desirable audience, so, too, does specialized content that can be found on the web. The online medium could take this recent vote by the FCC as an opportunity to demonstrate its ability to fill a need for something other than what is offered by the few big outlets of information that we may very well be left with.

In most instances, I have nothing against businesses trying to get bigger, better, and stronger. But when it comes to vessels of culture, information, and civic discourse, the circumstances of their operation must be treated differently, and populations served need to be involved. Of the 520,000 pieces of correspondence Congress received on the issue (the vast majority sent via email, by the way), almost all of them were against the rules change. The population is more active on this issue as it stood before the FCC than any issue that has ever been on the table before a committee like this. But if a population does move to act within the parameters of the representative democracy that is supposed to act in that population's interest, shouldn't that population see effects of its efforts? If the half-million people are indicative of a larger audience that is also feeling concerned about the sameness of the media they will now be exposed to, that suggests a large audience that will find itself turning more frequently to the Internet for their media wants and needs.

Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News, has called what we now have in the media landscape an "embarrassment of niches." I think he's right. But we may only have the Internet as the last bastion of those niches. And this might just be a business opportunity that's always existed but has never looked quite like the way it does now.

By Jim Meskauskas
Courtesy of

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