Media consolidation refers to the concentration of media ownership in the hands of fewer and larger entities, usually multinational corporations such as Viacom, News Corp., Disney and Time Warner. Critics contend that consolidation restricts access to diverse ideas and opinions, reduces the quality and quantity of news and public affairs programming and allows monopolistic control of the airwaves. However, evidence suggests that consolidation has helped increase content diversity, improve news coverage and ensure the survival of free broadcast media.
One of the principal arguments against media consolidation is that it allows a single company to control multiple media outlets--newspapers, TV and radio stations--in a single market, reducing the diversity of content available to consumers. According to James Gattuso, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, ownership of multiple media sources in a single market allows companies to diversify their content in order to reach small, niche markets of consumers, rather than focusing all of their energy on a "lowest-common-denominator" mass audience.
Critics contend that media consolidation will result in less news and public affairs programming in local markets. However, in his study of the effects of cross-ownership on local news, Jeffrey Milyo, political science professor at the University of Missouri, found that local television newscasts for cross-owned stations contain one to two minutes more news coverage overall than the average for non-cross-owned stations. Cross-owned newspapers also correlated with more local news and political coverage.
Media consolidation allows companies to exploit economies of scale to produce higher quality programming across all of their outlets, including better news coverage and public affairs content. The Project for Excellence in Journalism's study of ownership and local TV news quality found that cross-ownership--in which a parent company owns both a TV station and newspaper in the same market--leads to higher quality local news programming. The study also found that local ownership does not correspond to higher quality news programming.
In spite of critics' fears, media consolidation is unlikely to lead to monopolistic control of the airwaves. Jonathon Knee, Columbia Business School professor, argues that technological innovations such as satellite and cable television and the Internet have created "an explosion of sources of news and information" that makes monopolistic control virtually impossible. Gattuso's research points out that the concentration of media holdings has not resulted in fewer media owners, and he notes that the number of separately owned media outlets increased by as much as 90 percent in some markets between 1960 and 2000.
Free Broadcast Survival
Far from reducing access to ideas and opinions, media consolidation may be the only hope for the survival of free broadcast media. As the number of paid media services increases, traditional free media, such as radio and television, are garnering a smaller audience share and fewer advertising dollars, forcing cuts to newsroom budgets and leading some to reconsider the long-term viability of free broadcasts. As former FCC commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth notes, consolidation would allow companies to attract advertisers by building larger audiences and distributing the cost of news production across a variety of channels.