Yesterday, I set out to talk about what will probably happen to the media landscape in 2017, but realized that the post was getting way too long.
After all, we really needed a review of the FCC and important acts of the past before we could even discuss the near future and what’s in store for journalists and PR/marketing pros.
Quick recap: The FCC started out as a governmental oversight organization that would not be part of the big government so as to remain politically neutral. The FCC would regulate and prohibit big telecommunications mergers so that the public would always have a wide variety of “voices” in the media and news; our First Amendment rights can only thrive without media monopolies and conglomerations.
Well, that was the theory anyway. For the most part, up until 1996, the FCC managed that objective somewhat. But, under the Clinton administration when the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was signed, the FCC lost power to control the lobbyists working on behalf of media moguls, and the media landscape grew to the point where today we only have a few large corporations controlling 90 percent of the media and press.
All this happened under the assumption that the media corporations would in turn help our digital infrastructure grow. In turn for the U.S. government allowing these huge media buy-outs and mergers, the conglomerations would help the government bring internet connections to households, schools, universities and small communities.
Again, nice theory, but no big surprise that it didn’t work as planned. It’s true that the number of households who have internet access is growing year by year. But, there’s still a lot of American households that do not have reliable internet access at home, specifically in rural and poorer places.
One of the reasons that the plan didn’t work was that the FCC’s hands were tied by that 1996 Act.
Merger after merger, buy-out after buy-out, the media conglomerations are working towards monopolies. This is the very thing that was not ever supposed to happen. But it is.
And, the “beauty” of this, is that it doesn’t matter what you’re political affiliation is, we need to start talking about this more and more. And here’s why.
President Elect Trump has an idea to dissolve the FCC and farm out some of the responsibilities of the FCC organization to other government agencies. So far as I can tell, his theory about regulations of media mergers is total laissez faire. And so, the few big media conglomerations are gearing up to gobble up as many “smaller” media-related companies as they possibly can in as quick a time as possible.
4 possible media mergers on the horizon
- The on again, off again Sprint and T-mobile merger may be back on the table again. Why you should care. Instead of four major telecommunications “operators” in the country, we’d have just three. What’s to stop the other two from merging to retaliate, leaving just two? Everyone complains about their cell phone bills now. With a duopoly working towards a monopoly, what do you think your bill would be like then? What would be the incentive for a duopoly or monopoly to finish bringing internet access to the poor or rural communities? That would only perpetuate educational and employment disparities between the haves and have-nots.
- Rumor has it that Disney is looking to buy Netflix. I predict that this will happen and it will happen quickly. Why you should care. I know I am probably going to rain on the parade of those who would love to see this merger happen for the sheer reason that we’d have a greater streaming catalog for our monthly subscription. But did you consider that everything that you love about Netflix could go away? Netflix paved the way for other pay-for streaming services that have allowed customers to cut the cable-cord and save money. Will our subscription price be raised under Disney? Netflix has given us new content shows, allowing new independent voices to be heard. Will this go away when Disney, one of the six major controlling media conglomerates take over? Will we see more of Disney-owned programming and less independent programming? Will we see commercials on Netflix? These are important questions.
- AT & T and Time Warner could finally get the go ahead to merge. Why you should care. Unlike the Sprint/T-mobile merger that is set up to eliminate competition, this merger will not do that. But you should still care, especially if you are interested in the free exchange of ideas and content (journalism, PR, marketing). I expect that if this merger finally goes through, we will see less innovative television channels being introduced and more of those only approved by the mega media company. You know those alerts from channels that say they are at risk from being blocked by your cable provider? We’ll probably see more and more of those. I also suspect that if you are an employee of either AT&T or Time Warner, your wages and benefits will decrease, which will be poor for the economy.
- Facebook, Google, Apple and Twitter are looking to branch out from tech to media. Why you should care. Why do you think Facebook and Instagram introduced live video services? It’s because Facebook, who also acquired Instagram in 2012, is looking to diversify it’s portfolio even more and offer it’s own entertainment programming. The same with Google, Apple and Twitter. There’s been a lot of talk recently about the lack of quality or originality offered by movie and television companies. Again, that’s because the movie and television companies are mostly owned by the big 6 media conglomerations. And again, the fewer the controlling companies there are, the less “voices” there are. With the four big digital content companies looking to branch out in this arena, the independent and unique media voices could grow even more softer until they are silenced.
What’s the big deal?
There are so many details about these possible mergers that I don’t have the time or capability in this blog to get into. Some of those details I don’t even pretend to understand. But, there are some important issues that are easy enough for everyone to understand when it comes to media mergers.
- Some people think that the FCC hasn’t done a good job at preventing media mergers, and they would be correct. But Trump’s deregulation policies and dissolution of the FCC is not the answer. His laissez faire stance on media mergers will only increase the chances of media monopolies.
- Media monopolies are really, really bad for our freedom of speech and press. Anytime the press is allowed to be controlled by one or two private or public organizations, we lose our individual rights to be heard or hear the whole story about the news or important events. We also increase our chances of more political bias presented in the news. President Elect Trump is extremely vocal about his mistrust of the press to begin with, and he will most likely support media mergers that will agree with his politics and opinions. We may eventually lose opposing voices in the media. We may even see less and less diversity in the White House Press Room. There will also be less transparency of important issues. See if this sounds like something that is plausible:
“Perhaps the most striking example is Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister. Berlusconi is a television magnate who controls close to 90% of Italian television. He is not reluctant to use this power to control content, with a history of bullying both publicly and privately-owned stations under his control, firing critics and satirists (Stille, 2006), and using his privately-owned stations as a ‘fan club’ (Economist, 2002). In short, news organizations with a political agenda and a willingness to use the news to promote it are by no means a mere theoretical possibility. ” –Simon P. Anderson and John McLaren, 2010
3. If you are a journalist, PR manager or marketing specialist, your jobs will be greatly impacted by mergers.
- Expect more lay-offs.
- Expect more content control.
- Expect your press releases and advertisements will be controlled more.
- Expect to have to fight more fake news stories.
- Expect more general distrust of your messages as people lose their ability to tell unbiased news from fake or biased news.
- Expect more agenda pushing in the press. This might seem like good news for marketers, but only the big marketers with lots of money to pay the big media conglomerates for ad space and time.
- All in all, expect a little less free speech and press the more and more media mergers are deregulated.
I’ve only begun to address all of the reasons media mergers will be bad for our wallets and freedoms of speech and press. If you’re interested in learning more about how the 2017 media landscape can affect the general public and communications jobs, here are a few good reads (Photos courtesy of Amazon):
- Media Bias: Finding It, Fixing It (2007; McFarland & Company) by Wm. David Sloan and Jenn Burleson Mackay
- The New Media Monopoly (2004; Beacon Press) by Ben H. Bagdikian
Will the Last Reporter Please Turn out the Lights: The Collapse of Journalism and What Can Be Done To Fix It (2011; The New Press) by Robert W. McChesney and Victor Pickard
- Captive Audience: The Telcom Industry and Monopoly Power in the Gilded Age (2014; Yale University Press) by Susan Crawford