Ed Driscoll

What Ever Happened to the Big Media Boogeyman?

Writing in Tech Central Station, Adam Thierer of the CATO Institute contrasts the late 1990s-era fears of a Big Media Boogeyman with the current malaise of the MSM:

OK, now let’s flash-forward to the present. What a difference a few years makes. Today’s headlines about the media industry all scream one consistent message: Traditional media providers and outlets are in big trouble. A recent issue of The Wilson Quarterly featured a cover story / symposium on “The Collapse of Big Media.” The Christian Science Monitor recently ran a story entitled, “Newspapers Struggle to Avoid Their Own Obit,” which was ironic since the CSM is currently undergoing major changes and is rumored to be considering a switch to an all Internet-based format. In an editorial entitled “Death to the Networks,” Broadcasting & Cable magazine posits that several of the traditional TV networks may be extinct within the next few years.

What has happened over the past few years to lead to such a stunning reversal of fortunes for traditional media? The Age of Scarcity has given way to the Age of Abundance. The code words for our new media environment are customization, personalization, choice, competition, and, above all, abundance. Citizens now enjoy more news and entertainment options than at any other point in American history or human civilization.

These developments were well underway when the AOL-Time Warner deal and the FCC ownership revisions were announced, but many still feared that the old media giants would just buy up everything in sight and stifle the new forms of competition and choice. That fanciful scenario never developed, of course. Indeed, since the time of AOL-Time Warner, old media operators have done a stunning about-face and engaged in DE-consolidation maneuvers to get back to basics and salvage some value out of deals gone wrong. As a result, beyond the gradual disintegration of AOL-Time Warner, we have seen divestiture moves or spin-off proposals by many large media operators over the past year, including: Viacom, Clear Channel, Disney, Emmis Commnications, Liberty Media, and Cablevision just to name a few.

In some cases, the “synergies” that many media operators hoped for simply did not develop. In other cases, technological change and the rapid evolution of the media marketplace overtook them and nullified any advantages that might have been gained from the mergers.

Regardless, this is an example of a well-functioning, dynamic marketplace at work. Media critics seem to think that any merger or acquisition is all just part of some sort of grand conspiracy to destroy democracy or competition, but in the end, things sort themselves out and we end up with an ever-expanding universe of media options at our disposal. Indeed, ask yourself a simple question: Do you have more media options and outlets at your disposal today than you did 5 to 10 years ago?