Comparatively Happy

All in all, 2003 could have been worse

Any year that has a war in it is not likely to engender warm and fuzzy memories, and, even though 2003 seems at this point to be ending on a big military uptick (Dubya finally caught Saddam for his father), this has been one bum series of calendar sheets. At the best, it seems, nice things almost happened. The Red Sox almost won something. The Cubs almost won something. Jessica Lynch was almost a mythical hero. The economy improved, that's the good news! But without adding any jobs. That's the reality.

Values and circumstances change. We tend to look back at years to measure how they stand up to what we've understood before, and we do the same with broad trends, of course.

For so many types of businesses, consolidation is the ultimate good/bad, yin/yang line. Among broadcasters, for example, hubcasting is an eminently practical way for the owner of stations in a region to cluster the technology in one location and run those stations out of one place, not a half dozen. If you were hardware-store owner, you'd have a warehouse and ship goods out when they were needed, right? Except that, when broadcasters consolidate, jobs are lost, and lives are changed, and the romantic in you argues that the "local" station isn't so local anymore and somehow that's bad.

At this magazine, we wrestle with topics like that an awful lot—especially since on a practical, bottom-line basis, what's to argue? We cover businesses that are trying to make money. We're all for it! But probably a sizeable percentage of our readers remember with fondness the special radio or television station they grew up with—how it did something "different"—and now decry that the industry is run by what is truly a handful of companies.

I have to confess I've heard one of those Clear Channel radio stations with a disc jockey who sounded like he was broadcasting from a small Upstate New York location but was, in fact, probably gabbing out of Dallas. It wasn't local, but it wasn't sinful. It was efficient. It was Wal-Mart. It's sad. That's life.

This remorseful theory of relativity can get you through. The best way to judge a year is relative to how bad it was just a little while before. So this year, you don't have disputed-heiress Anna Nicole Smith to pick up out of the gutter anymore. But you have bona fide-heiress Paris Hilton in her space. Reasonable people might argue, but I'd say that's a net gain, and, besides, reasonable people really wouldn't argue a point as unreasonably pointless as that one.

Next month, the syndication business does its business at NATPE. Again, there are only a few syndication companies of any importance left. The rest have been consolidated, and so have the deals. Big A Studio concocts a syndicated talk show and directs all of The Big A Broadcasting stations to run it. That gets it going. Once, in syndication, there was a better marketplace of ideas (though mentioning "syndication" and "ideas" in the same breath seems daft) because, I think, syndicators had a wider universe to satisfy than their own station group. It seems to me that, before syndicators and broadcasters became so linked, there was more and better syndicated product out there. The relative truth: It wasn't much better. But there was more.

Again, on a business level, who would actually argue that this synergy isn't practical? Not me. But consolidating syndication removed the entrepreneur, and television syndication now lives in a world of the perpetual 2 rating.

In 2003, the regular guy in the street got up in arms about media consolidation, stirred by the 45% ownership cap. Because of the controversy, as the year ends the cap looks like it will be 39%. But, by the time media consolidation got to The People, the percentage was relatively irrelevant anyway. About five big companies provide 90% of television's programming, and that was before
any new change in ownership laws.

If anything—and I happen to think it's a big issue for media companies—the only thing to come out of the ownership-cap controversy is that a much wider swath of the viewing and listening public is convinced that Big Media is shoving inferior pop culture and news into audience craniums. Listen to a public-radio or -TV pledge drive, and the linkage is mentioned constantly: Support this public station or be damned to, um, the world of Paris Hilton.

Bednarski may be reached at