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Control the Media. Control the Message.

“Control the media. Control the message.”

So wrote philosopher and media theorist Marshall McLuhan. Even though media has changed since McLuhan gave us that very Warholian statement; today “media” encompasses a great deal of both content and distribution while the “message” is still…well, it’s still the message. The ideas and thoughts contained within the media.

Since the creation of the printing press, it’s been a delicate dance between media and message.

Over the past 30 years, it’s resembled less a dance and seems more like unbridled fucking.

This past Thursday it got even more sordid as Comcast announced its “merger” with Time Warner Cable for 45 billion dollars.

As both a Comcast shareholder and employee, you might think that I would applaud this. I don’t. While I am completely confident that Comcast is doing nothing illegal and I remain certain that the Roberts family operates their business well within the law and with the utmost integrity.

As I wrote last month, I remain more afraid of the second, third and fourth tiers below them, feeding at their trough, thinking they will make it into the Roberts socioeconomic stratosphere.

"Oh no he din'it just say that."
“Oh no he din’it just say that.”

Comcast Executive Vice President David L. Cohen, who oversees Comcast’s relationship with regulators in Washington, would be one of those to be afraid of.

In speaking of the merger (since when is one company buying another a merger and not an acquisition), and apparently being completely ignorant to any conception of income inequality, he said “We’re certainly not promising that customer bills are going to go down or even that they’re going to increase less rapidly…and I don’t believe there’s any way to argue that they’re going to be hurt from a price perspective as a result of this transaction.”

HUH?! 

On the one hand, you have to applaud the sheer ballsiness and honesty of such a statement. On the other hand, you wanna find Mr. Cohen and bitch slap him. It’s exactly that kind of rhetoric from the Comcast minions we should fear, not the Roberts family, or even Comcast as an entity. Let’s call it the “Let them eat cake” mentality.

The core tenet of free market capitalism is competition. It is argued that through competition, the consumer benefits. Anyone with a rudimentary understanding of economics through to the rotting corpse of Milton Friedman would say the same thing. With Comcast’s purchase of Time Warner Cable, they move one step closer to completely decimating the very idea of competition in the cable industry.

According to the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, Comcast is the number one cable provider with 22 million subscribers, followed by Time Warner Cable with 12 million. Satellite providers DirectTV and Dish Network have about 20 million subscribers and 14 million, respectively.

Presuming the purchase is approved, Comcast’s next closest competition in cable would be Verizon, with a little less than 5 million subscribers. That’s around 400% MORE cable subscribers than its closest cable rival. Even compared to satellite competition, Comcast would have 58% MORE subscribers than them.

To define that as competition is to have a VERY liberal definition of the word.

While an argument percolates about how this acquisition could see the spawn of more acquisitions and media consolidations (and I believe it will spawn those…soon), you should consider a couple of things about why this is not so good and how it came to be.

One, since its acquisition of NBCUniversal, Comcast is “bound by consumer-protection conditions that the Federal Communications Commission applied…Among these protections are ‘open access’ rules, also known as network-neutrality provisions, which prevent Comcast from favoring certain content over its network. Protections that Comcast is willing to extend to Time Warner Cable’s customers.”

That sounds OK, right? Not so much. Currently, Time Warner Cable customers have no limit on data usage per month while Comcast imposes a 250g cap on their customers, which they would more than likely enforce. That hardly seems “open” or embodying any sense of “net neutrality” to me. To be fair, 250g is more than most people use, or probably need, but there are certainly entrepreneurs and small businesses who would be impacted by such restriction.

Two, while competition is widely considered to be the chief component of capitalism, it’s also critical to having a well-informed population. So much so that the government stepped in, preventing cable companies from controlling more than 30% of any one market. After years of legal battles, would you care to guess which company was successful in overturning that 30% cap? Yea, that’d be Comcast back in 2009, paving the way for their NBCUniversal purchase and what we are facing right now with their proposed TWC purchase.

To think that a cable company that controls BOTH the media AND the message is going to provide a comprehensive and unbiased information and entertainment platform is beyond naive. It’s fucking dumb.

Three, consolidation of cable and telecom companies, along with the availability of satellite providers, has not proven to be boon to consumers we were told it would be. In short, we haven’t really benefited because it hasn’t really been competition. “Cable bills have risen at two to three times the rate of inflation, annually, since passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which largely deregulated the industry.”

Four, Comcast spent over 18 million dollars lobbying in 2013:

Pretty substantial.
Pretty substantial.

There are a myriad of other things that should cause concern to anyone responsible for actually paying for the services that companies like Comcast offer. I suppose the biggest one would be what I point out above, that cable bills have been increasing at “two to three times the rate of inflation annually”.

If we presume the rate of inflation since 2003 is an aggregate of 2.3%, that means you’ve seen your cost for these services increase 4.6%, annually since 2003. Trust me, that is a very conservative estimate, mainly because I am neither an economist nor mathematician. Nonetheless, that should alarm you.

I can tell you personally that my income has not kept up with every other aspect of my life (transit, health care, food, power, etc) that has increased. 

We might make more money, we just keep less.

Let me reiterate that I don’t think what Comcast, or the Roberts family, is doing is inherently evil. As a Comcast employee, I can tell you that the company prides itself on its integrity so I am confident they are operating well within the law. Of course, I’ve no doubt profited from it by keeping my job and being a shareholder.

Do I disagree with them? Yes. More often than I agree.
Do I consider it one step closer to a monopoly? Yep.
Are they using their money to influence the way the laws are shaped, made and interpreted? Absolutely.

THAT’S the problem. That’s also democracy.

And until changing those laws and upending those lawmakers enters the conversation among you and I, it won’t change. In fact, it will get worse. We can expect more and more of this type of consolidation in media, as well as other industries. And because only a few companies parse out the information, we’ll be kept further and further in the dark. Even worse is that we are not only having to suffer through it, we’re financing it. We’re paying for our own dumbing down!

Somehow, here in America we’re media masochist’s.

Compared to the rest of the world, America has some of the most restrictive and expensive Internet fees. The Cost of Connectivity, from 2012, reports that almost anywhere outside of the United States, you can find service providers who DOUBLE the Internet access speed that we get here, with no cap on data usage, at about 1/2 to 1/3 of the price! France has one of the more particularly appealing packages…say what you will about socialism, but 35 hour weeks, five to nine weeks of vacation as the norm, nationalized health care AND better Internet packages? Socialism doesn’t sound all that bad. France could almost be tolerated if it weren’t populated by the French.

While it is true that Comcast could still prove to be that corporate anomaly and once they get and have control of both the media and the message, they will pivot to better serve the populace. It would be an epic corporate paradigm shift that, to date, is historically unheard of. So yea, that seems unlikely.

If the media is coming from and being controlled by one entity, such as Comcast, how do you suppose that bodes for the average citizen? For capitalism? For democracy?

Marshall McLuhan would say not so well. “All media exist to invest our lives with artificial perceptions and arbitrary values.”

I don’t like that message. Neither should you.

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