The Comcast Center, second left, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
“This is simply too much, too big, too powerful, too lacking in benefits for American consumers and citizens,” I said as I cast my no vote on the market-altering Comcast-NBCU merger in January 2011. Mine was the lone dissenting voice as the Federal Communications Commission approved the deal by a four-to-one vote.
I still remember the day when the top brass from Comcast and NBC-Universal came calling on me at the FCC. As I listened to Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and his cohort, I began to understand the daunting breadth of the transaction they had devised to combine Comcast’s vast programming and broadband cable distribution networks with the assets of General Electric’s National Broadcasting Corporation and Universal Studios. This went breathtakingly beyond any deal that I had seen before. It was telecom and media combined; content and distribution; horizontal and vertical integration; broadband, but also broadcast; traditional media, plus new media; news and information, as well as sports and entertainment. It was the power to corner markets, quash competitors and dictate prices to consumers. Here, clearly, was the merger of mergers, creating a powerhouse without precedent in the world of communications.
My opposition to the unbridled merger mania that had wreaked such havoc on consumers and competitive enterprises was a matter of long public record. For eight years I had been in the Democratic minority at the FCC, unable to rein in the enthusiasm of my GOP colleagues for ever more media industry consolidation. But wasn’t that supposed to change after the 2008 election, when I was part of a new Democratic majority? Why were we even voting on an item to approve this massive combination? After all, I had a file folder filled with letters and statements from Senator and candidate Barack Obama indicating that if he was president, the brakes would be applied to this merger mania. He had expressed deep concern about the rush to approve mergers, and he was on record in support of new and more diverse media outlets. He had also recommended that the FCC should “complete a proceeding on the responsibilities that broadcasters have to the communities in which they operate” before even thinking about approving new mergers. Those public-interest responsibilities got short shrift in the commission’s four-to-one approval of the Comcast-NBCU behemoth.
Federal regulatory agencies make definitional decisions in the lives of Americans. But they are little covered by our diminished media; and even when the stories are told, they tend to be told from the perspective of the powerful. That’s what makes Susan Crawford’s book Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age so remarkable. She gets the facts straight—I know, because I was there. But she also does something just as important: she puts the facts in perspective, providing readers with an analysis that is essential if we are ever going to forge communications policies that serve all Americans.
With a discerning eye and sure hand, Crawford deploys her considerable legal, academic and telecom industry knowledge—plus her stint as special assistant to the president for science, technology and innovation policy in the early Obama White House—to illuminate how an ever-shrinking number of industry giants have used their money and power to put consumers and government in a stranglehold. The author finds stark similarities between the railroad baronies of old and the communications oligarchies of today. Then she takes us through the story of the Baby Bells (offspring of the Ma Bell telephone monopoly after its breakup in the 1980s), the rise of cable, the broadband revolution, the eternal jockeying for market control, and the failed attempts by heavily lobbied government regulators to come to grips with fast-changing technologies and equally fast-changing business plans.