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But it's the media environment itself that is waking people up, many observers say. Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" during last January's SuperBowl on CBS made a national audience more aware of cross-ownership within the media. It was MTV, a sister network of CBS, that was responsible for producing the SuperBowl halftime show. (The two entities are owned by Viacom.) Intercooperation is a high priority at CBS, as Les Moonves, the newly installed Viacom copresident, told an audience of TV critics this July. "We're working hard to make sure all the pieces work hand in hand with each other, radio, billboards, bus sides, on-air promotion."

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Large media holdings can provide a boon to consumers because of the resources available to various divisions of a parent company. But some argue that it can work against the public good .

After a train derailment last year released toxic gases into the air surrounding Minot, N.D., authorities could not use six of the local eight radio stations to warn residents because the stations broadcast only prerecorded shows. As a result of the Telecommunication Act of 1996, national media conglomerate Clear Channel Communications owns all six stations, critics say. In accord with corporate guidelines, cost cutting has led to stations airing prepackaged programming without any on-site supervision.

In a poll released this July, a survey of national media workers conducted by media unions revealed that more than 86 percent of journalists believe that consolidation is leading to more entertainment and weather over serious news. These programs are cheaper to produce and score higher ratings, maximizing profits for the parent company.

But others say that the same conglomerates have also provided alternatives for those wanting more substantive news. In a recent issue of Reason magazine, Ben Compaine, author of "Who Owns the Media? Competition and Concentration in the Mass Media," wrote, "Today there are 24-hour news channels (CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC), plus the financial news channels CNBC and CNNfn. There are regional all-news channels like New England Cable News. Channels such as the History Channel provide daily programming similar to the documentaries that used to be 'specials' on the broadcast networks and PBS."

Media growth isn't all bad says Robert Thompson, a media expert at Syracuse University in New York. "When I was young, we had three major networks," he says. "Today, there are at least five, even in the midst of all this consolidation."

Still, many argue that more could be done to provide a greater plurality of voices among the media. One of those critics, surprisingly, is Jonathan Edelstein, an FCC commissioner who disagrees with the body's attempt to relax rules restricting corporate ownership. Following the court ruling against the FCC, Mr. Edelstein issued the following statement: "The Commission should truly act in the interest of the American public rather than the corporate interests of media giants who want to get even bigger."

Expect to see plenty of policy prescriptions offered up as the campaign season progresses and as Congress prepares to review the Telecommunication Act of 1996. Author and anticonsolidation activist Robert McChesney would like to see more plurality of media and more government funding of public broadcasting.

And for extra credit on the pop quiz, the pundit recommends that concerned media consumers "call their [US] representative and demand there be hearings in every state about the role of media ownership, so that the new rules reflect the role it plays in everyone's life, not just the powerful lobbyists."

Under the media umbrella

Major conglomerates and a selection of holdings, plus their 2003 revenue. (Excludes music and book publishing.)

TimeWarner - $39.6 billion

Holdings: Warner Bros, AOL, CNN, HBO, Time Warner Cable, Turner, Cartoon Network, The WB, New Line Cinema, Castle Rock Entertainment, DC Comics, People, Entertainment Weekly

The Walt Disney Company - $28.4 billion

Holdings: ABC, Disney Channel, ESPN, A&E, History Channel, E! Entertainment, Buena Vista, Touchstone Pictures, 10 TV stations, 60-plus radio stations, Miramax Films, and theme parks.

Viacom - $26.6 billion

Holdings: CBS and UPN networks, over 35 TV stations, MTV, Showtime, Nickelodeon, BET, Paramount Pictures, Blockbuster Video

News Corporation - $17.5 billion

Holdings: FOX Network, DirecTV, 34 TV stations, National Geographic Channel, FX, 20th Century Fox, the New York Post, The Times (of London)

NBC Universal (spinoff of GE) - $13 billion

NBC, Telemundo, Universal Pictures, Universal Parks & Resorts, USA Network, CNBC, Bravo, MSNBC, PAX, 14 TV stations, Sci-Fi Channel

Source: Columbia Journalism Review's Who Owns What?