As the media become more and more concentrated, consumers face fewer programming choices from diverse sources and may find that the high-quality programming they once could count on is hard to come by today. That's because as media conglomerates buy out the small, independent producers, programs must appeal to a much wider swatch of viewers. In a consolidated world, independent and niche programming is at stake.
Who Owns What?
The FCC maintains that cable provides a wide variety of channels and shows, but many popular cable networks are owned by cable or broadcast giants, meaning that we get more of the same. For example, cable giants like Time Warner own CNN, Headline News, TBS, and TNT. And Comcast owns E!, The Golf Channel, G4techTV, and Outdoor Life Network.
Disney does not just own the Disney Channel, it also owns ABC, ABC Family, Toon Disney, SoapNet, and parts of ESPN, A&E, the History Channel, Lifetime and E!. The Columbia Journalism Review provides information about "who owns what."
Creative Community Fights Back
Writers unions like Writers Guild, East and groups like the Center for Creative Voices in Media have tried to fight against this trend toward media consolidation, but they have faced an uphill battle. With each broadcast network owning their own production studio, and with cable companies buying and creating new channels all the time, independent programming is difficult to get on the air – no matter how good the show may be.
Elimination of Fin-Syn Rules Hurt Independent Programming
It does not help that the FCC no longer can enforce rules that helped increase program diversity. The "financial-interest and syndication rules" (or "fin-syn" for short) were vital for the existence of diverse and independent shows in the 1970s and 1980s.
The rules prohibited the broadcast networks from maintaining a long-term financial interest in television programs they aired and prevented them from creating in-house syndication arms. This helped limit the ability of broadcasters to control much of the programming being aired and encouraged independent production of content.
As part of a deregulatory approach to media policy, the FCC relaxed the rules in 1991. An appeals court later relaxed the rules even further so that by 1995, all traces of these rules were gone. You can learn more about this issue by going to the Web site of the Center for Creative Voices in Media.
The impact of the elimination of the fin-syn rules can be seen over time. In 1990, when the original rules were in place, the major broadcast networks – ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX – fully or partially owned just 12.5% of the new series that they aired. Just a decade later, after the elimination of the rules, this figure had ballooned to 56.3 percent, and by 2002, it had surged to 77.5 percent, according to a July 2004 article from former television executive Ted Turner.
Today, these large conglomerates increasingly produce the programs for their cable and television outlets themselves, rejecting independently-produced programming. In fact, Tom Fontana of the Writers Guild, testified before Congress that The Cosby Show could never have been produced today. So instead of more diversity, we just get more of the same programs produced by more of the same companies. Some of this programming is considered by some organizations to be offensive, and over a dozen groups, including Consumers Union, have written to Congress about this issue.
Media Mergers Continue
Despite complaints from people across the political spectrum, the federal government continues to allow further media consolidation. For example, the FCC approved DirecTV's purchase by News Corp, which owns FOX in early 2004. Gene Kimmelman, Senior Director for Public Policy and Advocacy at Consumers Union, testified before the Senate Commerce Committee at a May 2003 hearing and testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee at this June 2003 hearing about this issue. He argued that a company should not own both television content and one of the few distribution channels for that content.