Guest Commentary: Media giants won’t stop till they own everything

May 7, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Having gobbled one federal regulation for breakfast, the TV networks are now tucking in their napkins for lunch and dinner.

They want roast suckling pig garnished with cash. They want pies and cakes and market share, all served up by that compliant cook of a Federal Communications Commission chairman, Michael Powell.

Two weeks ago the FCC voted to lift its ancient ban on allowing one network to own another. Now a big network can own a little network, meaning in the immediate instance that Viacom, which has acquired CBS, can hold onto UPN.

Now the networks are momentarily pleased but not yet sated. They’re just a burp away from digging their teeth into bigger vittles.

They want to own more TV stations. But they can’t own more TV stations because there’s an FCC cap. The FCC rule says no network can own stations that reach more than 35 percent-this figure has grown fatter over the years-of the national population.

It’s some old whacked-out federal affinity for diversity and localism, and it makes the networks crazy.

The network argument: To compete in the changed marketplace and to continue providing the American public with excellent free programming-short pause for all who are doubled up laughing-we need an end to archaic constraints on the lucrative station-ownership side of our business. In sum, we want to own everything.

The public argument: The continued concentration of big media is sort of frightening. Thank you for listening.

I use the word “networks” for simplicity’s sake. Actually, of course, we’re talking about Disney, News Corp., General Electric, Viacom and AOL Time Warner.

The FCC has been shedding muscle mass ever since the Carter administration and might just loosen the restrictions. It will continue, of course. Looking down the road …

2003: Networks argue that in order to maintain “a level playing field” in their battle with cable channels-which they also own-they require total dissolution of federal restrictions on station ownership.

The FCC daringly disagrees, but grants partial relief by limiting reach of network-owned stations to 99.9 percent of the national population. By year-end, the only remaining commercial stations not owned by networks are CBS affiliate WAKO-TV in Waco, Texas; ABC affiliate KZZZ-TV in Klamath Falls, Ore.; NBC affiliate KOW-TV in Vermillion, S.D.; and Fox affiliate WSUP-TV in Poland Spring, Maine.

2006: Threatened with a Screen Actors Guild strike, networks inform the FCC that to ensure the continued flow of high-quality entertainment to the American people, the networks need to own actors outright and to sell their vital organs after their shows are canceled.

Civil libertarians protest, citing the 13th Amendment ban on slavery. But the FCC approves on a 3-1 vote, accepting the NBC/General Electric argument that, technically, actors are home appliances, not humans.

2007: Networks argue that to keep a lid on rising production costs, they must own Canada.

“We now produce all of our entertainment programming in Canada,” said NBC President Robert Wright, “so we feel that it is reasonable and equitable that we be granted a 100 percent ownership stake in that country as well as all future syndication rights.”

Over objections from Canadian nationalists, the FCC votes unanimously to grant the networks a special waiver to own Canada. It also approves the mildly controversial “product placement addendum,” stipulating that the province of Manitoba be renamed Bud Lite.

2009: FCC approves a personal petition by Leslie Moonves, president of CBS Television, to seize a Kewpie doll collection previously belonging to Violet Gunderson of 304 Elm St., Blakesburg, Iowa. “No particular reason,” Mr. Moonves explained in his petition. “I just happen to like Kewpie dolls.”

2010: Complaining that onerous federal regulations hopelessly shackle their ability to serve the American public, the networks seek FCC approval to merge into one network. The FCC readily agrees.

“We are gratified that the FCC has acted wisely to put an end to decades of viewer confusion and to preserve the quality and diversity of network broadcasting,” says Disney President Robert Iger.

Mr. Iger adds that viewers will now enjoy the convenience of tossing out their remote controls and watching “Two Guys and a Girl” and “Three Sisters” on the same network.

However, the FCC emphatically rejects the proposed mega-network name CANF, because no FCC commissioner can say it without spitting.

Instead, the TV network will henceforth be known as GOD.