And so the Comcast-NBC Merger Hysteria Begins: Help Me Document It!

by on December 6, 2009 · 19 comments

As I noted in my recent paper, “A Brief History of Media Merger Hysteria: From AOL-Time Warner to Comcast-NBC,” every time a media merger is proposed we hear all sorts of silly Chicken Little predictions of impending doom. Among the more entertaining claims we hear are conspiracy theories about supposed nefarious schemes to take over the media universe and control our minds,  predictions of the death of journalism or democracy, or just good ol’ fashion screw-the-consumer price hikes. But, as I showed in my paper, those predictions have always proven to be bunk once the historical record is in–which usually only takes a few years. While most media mergers do end in misery–it’s for the merging firms and their shareholders, not the public. Unforeseen technological innovations and expanding media marketplace options typically doom most media mergers, while the viewing and listening public enjoys the fruits of continued marketplace evolution.

But the critics never acknowledge any of this. And, sadly, history repeats. The media worrywarts just keep mouthing the same lines and conveniently avoid any reference to their past predictions. No one bothers looking back and trying to match up those past predictions with present day facts. I’m out to change that.  I am going to attempt to keep a running inventory all the Chicken Little predictions about the Comcast-NBC Universal deal so that, a few years from now, we can look back and see how well those predictions match up with reality.  I suspect that, as was true of those earlier case studies, reality will look quite different than the rhetoric we are hearing today.

To kick things off, here are some rather outlandish comments from someone who should know better — Dan Gillmor, author of the excellent 2006 book, We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People, which I have cited quite favorably in much of my own work through the years.  But when it comes to the Comcast-NBCU deal, Gillmor has gone off the deep end in an essay entitled, “Comcast-NBC: The Road Toward Control Over What We Create.” He argues:

A Comcast-NBC combination is brazenly anti-competitve and anti-democratic. It would give one company far too much ownership over not just professionally produced media but also the ways media consumers can receive it.

Worse, if approved, it could mark the tipping point in Big Media’s push to take control over the Internet itself. That’s where we need to focus our attention.

But wait, there’s more…

it will be in Comcast’s financial interest to clamp down as much as possible on Internet data use when it conflicts with its cable-TV business, which is to say on a constant basis.

Oh my. This is quite a scary story. A Hollywood script could be born of all this! But, then again, Comcast-NBCU would quash that script and forever bury it from our sight, right?

I fear Gillmor has been drinking up some of the “perfect control” fantasies bandied about by his Harvard Berkman Center colleagues Lawrence Lessig and Jonathan Zittrain, which I have documented here before. These guys have claimed that a variety of digital players–AOL in the ’90s and Apple today–would crush our digital liberties and snuff out competition and dissent.

These tales are all fiction, of course. In my paper, I document just how quickly the much-ballyhooed AOL-Time Warner merger fell apart. When AOL-Time Warner announced their mega-merger, critics forecast “servitude,” “ministries of propaganda,” and “new totalitarianisms.” Just two years after the deal was announced, AOL-Time Warner had lost over $100 billion in shareholder value and Time Warner decided to drop AOL from its name altogether. And AOL is now being spun off altogether. So much for “perfect control.”

But what about Gillmor’s claim that Comcast will clamp down on all content that conflicts with its cable TV business model?  Rubbish. If they were going to do that, wouldn’t we have seen some evidence by now? And good luck trying even if they really wanted to do so.  It’s impossible for them to lock down content flows. There’s always another way for information and content to flow in our modern media marketplace. Indeed, Gillmor completely undercuts his own argument on this point when noting:

Keep in mind that Comcast wouldn’t be the first company to have this kind of vertical content and distribution structure. Time Warner owns some cable franchises along with CNN and other media properties; Cablevision has its own content business. Phone companies have some projects under way, too.

Yes, Dan, and what do those experiments tell us?!   Have you been subjected to some sort of sadistic mind control by the nefarious media overlords who own both content and conduit?  Or did you somehow just avoid the brain-washing because you have access to super-secret information sources outside their control? Please, do tell us. I am dying to know the “truth” that our wicked media overlords are keeping from us!

Sorry to be so snarky, but I am just really tired of this nonsense.  There has been no “takeover” over the media marketplace or our minds by these media companies.  Hell, these media companies can’t even figure out how to tie their own digital shoelaces most days of the week. They are scrambling to find something–anything–that works to counter to tsunami of digital devices, online options, and so on, that they were largely unprepared for. Mergers and alliances are one response to this storm, but there is no guarantee they will pan out. Most don’t. But, again, they typically don’t work out for the companies and their shareholders; the public largely ignores their pain and continues to benefit from a marketplace of rapidly expanding options and alternatives.

Anyway, please help me continue to document claims such as these so I can build a record and then match it up with reality later down the road.  It’s important that public policy be based on facts, not fanaticism.

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