Study debunks media monopoly fears in the US

MUMBAI: It is a myth that US media ownership is over concentrated today. Another myth prevalent is that programming choices available to American consumers are shrinking or somehow have been impaired


These findings are contained in a report published by American organisation The New Millennium Research Council (NMRC). The report is titled The Media Monopoly Myth: How New Competition is Expanding Our Sources of Information and Entertainment. The NMRC is composed of a network of policy experts who develop workable, real-world solutions to the issues and challenges confronting policymakers. Its work has focused primarily in the fields of telecommunications and technology.

The report notes that it is regularly contended that “five large corporations” control 80 per cent of the prime time television audience and thus control how and what information people have access to. However the fact of the matter is that the rise of new communications technology, coupled with new producers of information, has continually fragmented the overall mass audience once captured by the old mass media.

In the midst of ongoing court, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and public debate about media consolidation, the study finds that fears about media control and program choices are not based on fact and also reflect increasingly outdated notions of how consumers use media at a point in time when millions are shifting their attention to the Internet and other digital technologies.

The report notes that the three traditional broadcast networks -- ABC, CBS and NBC -- have seen their prime time ratings slide by about two thirds from the 1970s to date. In the 1970s, on a typical weekday evening, the three networks were watched by about 56 per cent of all households with televisions. By 2003, on a typical evening those networks had on aggregate a 20 per cent rating. They also face competition from newer networks, including Time Warner’s WB and News Corp’s Fox. Those five networks together aggregated to a 26 per cent rating.

Adding together the rating of these five broadcast networks with the cable networks owned by the same corporate family like CNN, HBO and the five major providers of television programming accounted for an average 51 per cent rating in December 2003. This is less than the share that the three networks enjoyed in the 1970s.

In the largest US markets, there typically are 15 or more separate owners of radio stations -- and in most of even the smallest markets in the US have more radio competition than in local TV and newspapers combined. A review of 17 studies finds that chainowned newspapers have greater latitude in determining editorial policy than do editors at familycontrolled newspapers.

The report notes that current measures for media ownership do not take into account the massive shift over the last 10 years in which two-thirds of Americans use the Internet for information gathering purposes, including viewing television and reading newspaper content.



The report notes that television viewers have more choices from more sources than at any time in the history of the medium. There is no support for the contention that media ownership by chains or conglomerates leads to any consistent pattern of lowered standards, content, or performance when compared with media owned by families or small companies.

The report argues that American policy makers have been concentrating on the wrong issues -- the financial size of media companies or the number of eyeballs tuned in to local programming -- rather than whether consumers have a wider range of programming options from which to choose, as is the case today. What is being observed in the US is that the media environment is changing so rapidly that traditional notions of 'media ownership' and 'concentration' have become irrelevant.

Overly restrictive federal ownership guidelines seeking to remedy these misplaced concerns about media ownership and content are now dysfunctional fixes for a phantom problem. The report bas noted that new delivery mechanism provide for greater choice. An example of that is the delivery of video and film via the Internet. This system is on the verge of becoming more mainstream.

As some of the local telephone carriers upgrade their systems with fiber optic cable to the curb or the home, the transmission speed of downloads will be competitive with cable and satellite services. Devices are on the market that allow even today’s broadband users to download movies and video programming for storage on personal video recorders for viewing at their convenience.

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