For many, Sidney Lumet's 1976 film Network is a wicked satire of the TV industry. For others, an apocalyptic vision of things to come. But, for me, it has always stood as a high-water mark for the concentration of power within the TV business. Even as I was lining up at the box office for the movie's first run, ABC, CBS and NBC were losing their grip. First came HBO, then Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch. Before you could say Three Blind Mice, living rooms were filled with programming that did not pass through the New York towers of TV's old oligarchy.
By the early 1980s, as I watched the power of the Big Three recede, I thought the movie an anachronism. I'm not so sure anymore.
Over the past several years, the TV business has been consolidating rapidly as a result of liberalized federal-ownership rules. We are now back to a point where you can reasonably argue that the business is controlled by just five companies: Disney, Viacom, News Corp., NBC and Time Warner.
Slowly, inexorably, the five have reassembled the prime time audience that many believe had been permanently dispersed during the 1980s. They did it by gathering piles of broadcast and cable networks.
Disney now owns ABC, ESPN and pieces of Lifetime, E!, A & E and History. Viacom has CBS, UPN, Showtime, TNN, MTV, VH-1, Nickelodeon, TV Land and half of Comedy Central. News Corp. counts FOX, FX, FOX News Channel, FOX Family and FOX Sports. NBC owns NBC, MSNBC and CNBC and parts of AMC, Pax TV, A & E and History. Time Warner has The WB, HBO, CNN, Headline News, TNT, TBS, Cartoon and the other half of Comedy.
Back in 1976, when Peter Finch/Howard Beale was threatening to off himself in prime time, the three networks had a combined 92% share of prime time viewing. Today's five TV giants, with all those networks, have a combined 86% share by our reckoning.
So the five are still a little short of the high-water mark. But I expect further consolidation. The five will eventually suck up the remaining "independent" cable networks of significance-USA, Sci-Fi, Discovery, TLC, BET, HGTV and The Food Network. And the five will become four when General Electric tires of NBC and sells it to Time Warner. This is no call for government to rebuild the ownership restriction to ensure programming diversity. Big is not necessarily bad. And no one has shown that this latest round of consolidation is harming or even disserving the American public. Today's Big Five offer a stunning array of programming, for just about every taste. And somehow, despite the big corporate ownership, they offer a lot of different viewpoints on a lot of different topics. To the extent those viewpoints are limited is due as much to government and public pressure as to corporate decision making. It's the gay-rights groups that are driving Dr. Laura off the air, not Viacom.
And despite all the recent consolidation, the mega-media companies may never reach the high-water mark of 1976. They may control a big part of broadcasting and cable, but they don't yet have a handle on the Internet, the AOL-Time Warner merger notwithstanding. If the technologists are right, the Internet will have enough bandwidth to deliver all the TV anybody would want-over the air or through a wire-by the end of this decade. Unless the Big Five somehow choke off the Internet, TV viewership will once again be scattered-this time over hundreds (thousands?) of Web sites rather than dozens of cable channels. It would take more than all the media's men-Eisner, Redstone, Karmazin, Murdoch, Wright, Case and Levin (or maybe by then a woman or two)-to put the audience together again. Jessell may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 212-337-6964.