The Media Big Six
The push by federal regulators to break
up Microsoft is big news. Until recently, the software giant seemed untouchableand
few people demanded effective anti-trust efforts against monopoly power in
the software industry. These days, a similar lack of vision is routine in
looking at the media business.
Today, just six corporations have a forceful grip on Americas mass media.
When The Media Monopoly first appeared on bookshelves in 1983, author
Ben Bagdikian explains, 50 corporations dominated most of every mass
medium. With each new edition, that number kept droppingto 29
media firms in 1987, 23 in 1990, 14 in 1992, and 10 in 1997.
Published this spring, the sixth edition of The Media Monopoly documents
that just a half-dozen corporations are now supplying most of the nations
media fare. Bagdikian, a longtime journalist, continues to sound the alarm.
It is the overwhelming collective power of these firms, with their corporate
interlocks and unified cultural and political values, that raises troubling
questions about the individuals role in the American democracy.
What are the chances that Bagdikianor anyone elsewill be invited
onto major TV broadcast networks to discuss the need for vigorous antitrust
enforcement against the biggest media conglomerates? Lets see:
CBS: Not a good bet, especially since its merger with Viacom (one of the
Big Six) was announced last fall.
NBC: Quite unlikely. General Electric, a Big Six firm, has owned NBC since
ABC: Forget it. This network became the property of the Disney Co. five
years ago. Disney is now the countrys second-largest media outfit.
Fox: The Fox network is owned by Rupert Murdochs News Corp., currently
number four in the media oligarchy.
Then theres always cable television, with several networks devoted to
CNN: The worlds biggest media conglomerate, Time Warner, owns CNNwhere
antitrust talk about undue concentration of media power is about as welcome
as the Internationale sung at a baseball game in Miami.
CNBC: Sixth-ranked General Electric owns this cable
MSNBC: Spawned as a joint venture of GE and Microsoft, the MSNBC network
would see activism against media monopoly as double trouble.
Fox News Channel: The Fox cable programming rarely wanders far from the
self-interest of News Corp. tycoon Murdoch.
Since all of those major TV news sources are owned by one of the Big Six,
the chances are mighty slim that youll be able to catch a discussion
of media antitrust issues on national television.
Meanwhile, the only Big Sixer that doesnt possess a key U.S. television
outletthe Bertelsmann firm based in Germanyis the most powerful
company in the book industry. It owns the mammoth publisher Random House,
and plenty more in the media universe. Bertelsmann is the worlds
third largest conglomerate, Bagdikian reports, with substantial
ownership of magazines, newspapers, music, television, on-line trading, films,
and radio in 53 countries. Try pitching a book proposal to a Random
House editor about the dangers of global media consolidation.
Well, you might comfort yourself by thinking about cyberspace. Think again.
The dominant Internet service provider, America Online, is combining with
already-number-one Time Warner and the new firm AOL Time Warner would
have more to lose than any other corporation if a movement grew to demand
antitrust action against media conglomerates.
Amid rampant overall commercialization of the most heavily trafficked websites,
AOL steers its 22 million subscribers in many directionsand, in the
future, Time Warners offerings will be most frequently highlighted.
While seeming to be gateways to a vast cybergalaxy, AOLs favorite links
will remain overwhelmingly corporate friendly within a virtual cul-de-sac.
Hype about the new media seems boundless, while insatiable old hungers for
maximum profits fill countless screens. Centralization is the order of the
media day. As Bagdikian points out: The power and influence of the dominant
companies are understated by counting them as six. They are intertwined:
they own stock in each other, they cooperate in joint media ventures, and
among themselves they divide profits from some of the most widely viewed programs
on television, cable and movies.
We may not like the nations gigantic media firms, but right now they
dont care much what we think. A strong antitrust movement aimed at the
Big Six could change such indifference in a hurry. Z
Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is The
Habits of Highly Deceptive Media.