Today, Jim Harper and I took on Andy Schwartzman of Media Access Projects and Gigi Sohn of Public Knowledge in this New York Times online debate about, “Should Consumers Fear the Comcast Deal?” Like other media critics, Schwartzman and Sohn adopt the gloom and doom tone that many worrywarts use when discussing the deal. Andy Schwartzman says “Comcast’s proposed acquisition of NBC Universal poses a genuine threat to free expression and diversity of speech in our democratic society.” And Gigi Sohn predicts that “With all that programming under its control, Comcast will have every incentive to take its shows off of the Internet and force consumers to buy a cable subscription to get online access to that programming.”
But as Jim Harper and I point out, we’ve heard such Chicken Little horror stories before. Whether it was AOL-Time Warner, News Corp-DirecTV, Sirius-XM, or whatever else, the story is always that a veritable media apocalypse awaits if the deals aren’t blocked. But it just ain’t so. As I note in my response:
Back in the real world, the sky never fell — except on the merging companies! Just two years after the deal was announced, AOL-Time Warner had lost over $100 billion and Time Warner has now spun off AOL entirely. The News Corp.-DirecTV marriage ended in divorce after just three years. And Sirius-XM flirted with bankruptcy earlier this year as listeners continue to flock to other audio options. The moral of the story: markets worked. Shareholders abandoned bad deals, new niche markets developed, and innovative digital technologies continue to revolutionize media.
And as Harper notes in response to silly claims about restricting access to content or communications, “Comcast-NBC can no more impinge on communications among Internet users than AOL-Time Warner did.” Which is to say, not at all. They would be doomed if they tried to play such games. You can’t make money or retain viewers or customers by cutting off access to content or conduit. Finally, “the genuine threat to free expression and diversity of speech” is not Comcast-NBC, as Schwartman suggests, but a government big enough to crush media companies and control media platforms as if they were their playthings.
For more details about the actual historical record, check out my recent PFF white paper: “A Brief History of Media Merger Hysteria: From AOL-Time Warner to Comcast-NBC.”