The mouse that roared

How telecommunications deregulation will help Disney--and other media giants--rule the world

So why should you care if Mega-MonsterMedia merges with MultiMam-mothMovies? No skin off your nose, is it?

Look again, Bubba. That's blood on your proboscis.
How are you going to like living in a city where one company owns the newspaper, two TV stations, several radio stations, the phone company, and the cable company? Remember Lily Tomlin's telephone operator Ernestine, who used to answer customer complaints by smirking, "Because we're the phone company." You have one giant Ernestine headed your way.

These two monster mergers--Capital Cities/ABC with Disney and CBS with Westinghouse--are taking place at the same time Congress is considering the telecommunications deregulation bill. And as I was saying just the other day, before I was so rudely interrupted by having Mickey Mouse buy my newspaper, the bill stinketh. Let's see how long the Suits let me keep saying that.

The media industry has contributed $20 million to influential House and Senate committee members who are pushing this legislation the hardest. And they have spent more than $40 million more in consultant and lobbying fees. They have an army in Gucci Gulch, while the consumer groups have had zero input on this. This one is a lobbyist's dream: you'll get higher prices and fewer choices.

Naturally, all this is being done in the name of "deregulation" and "increasing competition." The lobsters promise that the Telecommunications Act will allow you to buy sophisticated packages combining phone, video, and on-line computer information services, with lower prices for all.

The last time these Suits promised you deregulation would lead to lower prices was in 1984 when they de-regged cable television. All you got was prices increasing at three times the rate of inflation for $6 billion in overcharges.

The situation was so bad that Congress put price controls on cable services in 1992, despite President Bush's veto. The Federal Communications Commission estimates these caps have already saved cable subscribers almost $3 billion. The Telecommunications Act will repeal the price controls, so we're right back to the late '80s on cable.

The assertion that the bill will increase competition stands reality on its head. The bill is designed to encourage monopolistic alliances, and cable-telephone is only the most obvious. In the House version, even if cable and phone companies don't merge, they're permitted to buy up to 49 percent of their "competitor." Two companies, Tele-Communications Inc. and Time-Warner Inc., already control 40 percent of the cable market. Can you spell R-I-P-O-F-F?

Also hidden in this ultimate bad phone bill is a subsidy worth $11 to $70 billion to the big telecommunications companies. Under something called "spectrum flexibility" (don't let the words confuse you--this is simple stuff), broadcasters were allowed to reserve a second channel for high-definition TV. But now that they don't want to do HDTV, they want to use those extra channels for new, more profitable stuff. Under this bill, they still get the second channel with no requirement to serve the public interest.

In another example of what these people mean by "increased competition," the bill would allow network owners (such as your two new mega-media-merger companies), tiny li'l Time-Warner, and the unspeakable Rupert Murdoch to buy an unlimited number of broadcast stations, as long as the total doesn't exceed 35 percent of all households.

Murdoch, in case you haven't heard, is notorious for interfering with the news and editorial content of his media properties. It's bad enough when a bunch of Suits obsessed with the bottom line run your local newspaper; try Murdoch. Goodbye, community service.

Come on, team, think about this. How many politicians and journalists are going to be willing to stand up and criticize Rupert Murdoch, the king of tits-and-ass journalism, when he has a lock on one-third of all the media in this country? This is much more serious than whether the movie critic for the Startlegram is going to feel free to pan "Pocahontas." Or even whether I'll be allowed to continue to point out the difference between the salaries of top executives and the decline of salaries for workers.

There's already a feeding frenzy for, as they say, real estate along the information highway as a direct result of the salivary anticipation of the passage of this bill. Communications companies are starting to swallow one another the same way banks got scooped up through the Resolution Trust Corp.

Do you really want all your news and entertainment brought to you by the people who are so brilliant that they started EuroDisney?

Let's hear from all you radio talk-show hosts who brag about speaking for the "little guys." Warm up your fax machines and find out from the Consumer Federation of America, Ralph Nader, or media watchdogs just what is in this bill.

Hey, Pat Buchanan, where's the populist rights on this?
But only you, Dick Daring, average citizen, can stop it. Did your cable bill go down after 1992? Then why not reinvest a little of those savings in a postcard to your congressperson? Today.

Robinson Jeffers, one of our most pessimistic poets, wrote: "And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops, and sighs out, and the mass hardens."

Fight back.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Copyright 1995 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

 
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