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Editorial: A duopoly case to watch in L.A.

Jun 17, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Viacom’s announcement last week that it will merge the news operations of its two Los Angeles stations, KCAL-TV and KCBS-TV, marked the launch of an important test case for duopoly ownership-a case that will be closely monitored by the industry and its critics.
The spin breaks down along familiar lines: Viacom insists the move is a positive step taken with the goal in mind of better serving the needs of viewers in the nation’s second-largest television market. Media critics see it differently, arguing that Viacom is shaving costs at the expense of its viewers and employees.
Whether either group has it right will become clear in time. The newsroom merger is scheduled to take place in September. But it’s a safe bet that Viacom’s primary motivation is the bottom line. After all, television is a business; it’s almost always about the bottom line.
It’s pretty much a given that newsroom employees will lose their jobs. That’s standard procedure when a company moves to realize duopoly savings. In fact, some might argue that “duopoly savings” is a euphemism for job cuts. The human toll of such layoffs speaks for itself, as does the aggregate impact of these and similar job cuts in other markets on the overall well-being of the industry.
Even more troubling is the potential impact that combining the KCAL and KCBS operations will have on news coverage in the Los Angeles market. Coverage inevitably suffers when the number of distinct media voices is reduced, and in L.A., the count has begun to drop.
Viacom may want us to believe L.A. viewers will be better served by a single, larger, combined news operation. But that argument doesn’t hold water. Fewer outlets mean less competition, fewer decision makers in the market, fewer places for people to bring their news stories, fewer differing perspectives on the issues.
Multiply the KCAL-KCBS scenario by the market’s four TV duopolies among English- and Spanish-language stations, and the risk to media diversity in the region is readily apparent. Multiply the L.A. scenario by the countless markets nationwide in which duopoly ownership has gained a foothold as restrictions have been relaxed, and the picture becomes even more frightening. What’s happening on a broad scale, as media power becomes consolidated in fewer hands, is impacting markets everywhere. Diversity is already suffering, and given current trends, it is bound to get worse.
It’s only natural for the corporate decision makers to chase the bottom line, especially in tough economic times. But any vision that sacrifices diversity for cost-cutting is dangerously short-sighted. In the long run, killing diversity will prove to be bad for business, damaging the viability of the medium and driving away first viewers, then advertisers. With government regulators determined to relax restrictions on consolidation, it’s up to the industry to police itself, and it is more important than ever for TV’s decision makers to keep the big picture in mind.