Ted Turner’s Beef With Big Media

The always interesting Ted Turner says local programming, new ideas, and innovation suffer when small media companies are swallowed by giants or driven out of business.

Today, media companies are more concentrated than at any time over the past 40 years, thanks to a continual loosening of ownership rules by Washington. The media giants now own not only broadcast networks and local stations; they also own the cable companies that pipe in the signals of their competitors and the studios that produce most of the programming. To get a flavor of how consolidated the industry has become, consider this: In 1990, the major broadcast networks–ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox–fully or partially owned just 12.5 percent of the new series they aired. By 2000, it was 56.3 percent. Just two years later, it had surged to 77.5 percent.

In this environment, most independent media firms either get gobbled up by one of the big companies or driven out of business altogether. Yet instead of balancing the rules to give independent broadcasters a fair chance in the market, Washington continues to tilt the playing field to favor the biggest players. Last summer, the FCC passed another round of sweeping pro-consolidation rules that, among other things, further raised the cap on the number of TV stations a company can own.

In the media, as in any industry, big corporations play a vital role, but so do small, emerging ones. When you lose small businesses, you lose big ideas. People who own their own businesses are their own bosses. They are independent thinkers. They know they can’t compete by imitating the big guys–they have to innovate, so they’re less obsessed with earnings than they are with ideas. They are quicker to seize on new technologies and new product ideas. They steal market share from the big companies, spurring them to adopt new approaches. This process promotes competition, which leads to higher product and service quality, more jobs, and greater wealth. It’s called capitalism.

But without the proper rules, healthy capitalist markets turn into sluggish oligopolies, and that is what’s happening in media today. Large corporations are more profit-focused and risk-averse. They often kill local programming because it’s expensive, and they push national programming because it’s cheap–even if their decisions run counter to local interests and community values. Their managers are more averse to innovation because they’re afraid of being fired for an idea that fails. They prefer to sit on the sidelines, waiting to buy the businesses of the risk-takers who succeed.

“My Beef With Big Media” by Ted Turner

via Dan Gillmor