Can't Change That Channel: The Comcast-Time Warner Merger and Oligarchy

The New York Times' headline — "A Cable Merger Too Far" — sums up the dangers that a merger of Comcast and Time Warner pose to consumers. The proposed merger, which is under federal review would...

...concentrate too much market power in the hands of one company, creating a telecommunications colossus the likes of which the country has not seen since 1984 when the government forced the breakup of the original AT&T telephone monopoly.

It's not just costs, which are far too high as it is and which are likely to be the focus of many consumers' ire once the merger, if approved, goes into effect. I've had conversations about the cost issue, but few about the other implications — but it is these other threats we need to be discussing.

As the Times writes,

By buying Time Warner Cable, Comcast would become a gatekeeper over what consumers watch, read and listen to. The company would have more power to compel Internet content companies like Netflix and Google, which owns YouTube, to pay Comcast for better access to its broadband network. Netflix, a dominant player in video streaming, has already signed such an agreement with the company. This could put start-ups and smaller companies without deep pockets at a competitive disadvantage.

There are also worries that a bigger Comcast would have more power to refuse to carry channels that compete with programming owned by NBC Universal, which it owns. Comcast executives say that they would not favor content the company controls at the expense of other media businesses.

These are democratic implications. We too often view free speech issues only through the lens of government control and we ignore the dangers posed by corporate concentration and control. But as the Times makes clear, the danger of further corporate influence — whether for commercial or political reasons — is great.

As it is, we live in a time of false choices — hockey or basketball, Castle or Criminal Minds, Fox or MSNBC. We've come to believe that our consumer choices are equivalent to political choice and action. These are limited choices, of course, dictated by the medium and the commercial decisions of programmers or the political preferences of the extremely rich.

Our choices are narrowed before they get to us — a situation likely to be made worse by any merger. The point is that any merger that would "fundamentally change the structure of this important industry" — as the Times says of the Comcast/Time Warner consolidation — and that would "give one company too much control over what information, shows, movies and sports Americans can access on TVs and the Internet" will be bad for our already neutered democracy, moving us even closer to oligarchy.



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