Mega media is mediocre

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 9 February 2000

The hubbub in concerned circles these days is that AOL-TimeWarner, and now Time-Warner-Elektra mergers herald a dangerous trend. The dark enemy at the heart of this nightmare scenario? Media Monopoly.

I understand the fear – however misplaced it might be. I get it sometimes myself, and it goes something like this: a single giant company or corporate conglomerate will control virtually all the media content that we, the people, are exposed to. That company will have the ability to censor, or “edit,” news and points of view that do not serve its own profit-making agenda. The bigger the conglomerate, the more “special interests” there are to be protected. So if, for example, General Electric owns NBC, we might see a lack of news stories in which satellite technology or defense department spending are criticized.

In essence, the bigger a media conglomerate gets, the more watered down its content will become as it caters to the interests of its own executives and shareholders. And the worse a conglomerate gets at reporting the news, the more people will look for alternatives.

Consider what happened to Time magazine when its parent company, Time-Life, merged with Warner Brothers. The magazine rapidly turned into a cheerleader for entertainment culture. No, not all the covers were about Time/Warner properties, but the news magazine surrendered its objectivity about the role of entertainment in human affairs in order to sell its conglomerates products and culture. Likewise, when Time/Warner absorbed CNN, the cable news network lost its edge. This was no longer the anything-goes network of Ted Turner, media cowboy. In an effort to meet the entertainment needs of its new boss, CNN created a TV show along with Time to produce pulp so sensationalist that it led to public scandal.

The bigger a media company gets, the worse it gets, and the less money it makes. Time-Warner is really just a name on a big load of debt. Now, AOL has signed on to help pay the behemoth’s bills. Watch it go down, too.

Unlike monopolies in the real world, media monopolies in a networked environment will tend to fail. Networks thrive on – and promote – diversity. The more monolithic a content enterprise, the more limited its reach. By going through the mediaspace and turning various properties into AOL/Time Warner productions, the conglomerate only succeeds in reducing their potential impact. It turns them all into the same thing. This only creates a vacuum for someone else to create what’s been destroyed.

I guess we can worry about what monopolies might do to the Internet. On some level, I suppose, it feels like we’re living through that same transition from ham radio to broadcast radio – when the spectrum was taken away from hobbyists and given to corporations. But AOL won’t even be using the Internet. They’ve just bought Roadrunner, an interactive cable network. In fact, the Internet may just get freed up for more civic use as conglomerates migrate to other conduit, like coaxial cable, for their broadband offerings.

Speaking of which, I’m having a hard time imagining just what sort of broadband media content they’re going to pipe into my home that I’d be willing to pay for. And believe me, so are they. I’m looking forward to the kind of interactive games that SONY is working on more than I am to commercials with “buy” buttons.

Maybe I’ve simply outgrown my ability to imagine what’s coming, but I don’t see it in AOL/TimeWarner, or any media monopoly, for that matter. Time magazine is a commercial for the business of media; CNN is just another news channel; and I’ve never been a fan of AOL’s web-censorship policies. I can’t imagine how collaboration between these companies will yield anything better.

The blandification of packaged media is only compounded by their mergers. And the more they merge, the fewer of them there are, and the easier it will be to identify alternatives.

Moreover, as packaged media content becomes increasingly less compelling, people may begin to think more about using these networks to organize something truly living for themselves. For in a media monopoly, it’s no longer us against them – it’s us against “it.