The Mass-Media Gold Rush

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THE United States Congress has begun transforming the nation into a mediarchy shaped by powerful communications conglomerates.

What Americans need is a mixed mass communications system tempering the fattening of the corporate calf with the nourishment of the democratic spirit and soul.

What Capitol Hill is unleashing is a gold rush in cyberspace.

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This is the intent of the telecommunications bill approved in late May by the House Commerce Committee. It would gut protections against over-concentration of media ownership and neutralize such safeguards as remain over a truly free TV marketplace of ideas. It would end the last vestiges of corporate responsibility to the public-interest standard. Consumer cable price controls are to be removed on all but the basic tier.

In the early 1980s some 50 companies ran about half of American media -- its newspapers, radio and TV stations, magazines, publishing houses, movie studios. Today's number is less than half that.

Corporate concentration in autos and canned soup is one thing. Domination of the mind-food market is quite another.

Under the original federal ownership rules, no single ownership entity could hold more than seven television stations, and seven AM and FM radio stations each. Only a single television station could be owned in the same market. Cross-ownership of a newspaper and a TV station in the same city was forbidden. If the House bill becomes law, as is likely, most of this will be scrapped.

The bill would abolish cross-ownership prohibitions. The same company could acquire two television stations, a newspaper, a phone company, and a cable system in the same town. The proposed rule, says Rep. Ed Markey (D) of Massachusetts, will make Citizen Kane ''look like an underachiever.''

The players are limited to the cash-rich: the regional phone companies, networks and cable companies, and conglomerates such as Time-Warner. Smaller ownership groups, such as local television stations, are distressed. They expect the balance of power to swing to the cash-rich networks, which will gobble up many of them. Programming decisions will be made by a handful of network operators in New York and Los Angeles.

The battle is about a burgeoning annual mass telecommunications market estimated to be worth $2 trillion annually. The mediarchs are counting on a world in which the computer will speak, the TV will listen, and the phone will show pictures. In the free-for-all, networks can own cable companies, cable companies can enter the phone business, and regional Bell companies can buy cable systems.

The big players also plan to monopolize content -- programs, software, movies, games -- barring access to independent producers. And advertising combines are part of this play.

Advertising Age explains that ''big-spending marketers ... want to control the future of media and marketing.'' Ratings services are developing ways to produce track ''audiences'' on the Internet.

To influence the House legislation, legions of lobbyists swept across Capitol Hill, with bags of campaign cash. Over the past two years, the communications industry has handed out some $13 million dollars. Republican lawmakers literally invited industry executives to tell them what they wanted. They're getting most of it.

Long ago, in 1938, essayist E.B. White prophesied: ''We shall stand or fall by television, of that I am quite sure.'' Washington is about to make the choice, and the prospects are not good for democracy.

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