It's become commonplace to divide the media into "old" and "new," neatly corresponding to analog and digital technology. Under this handy dichotomy the old media (print and broadcast especially) represent mass marketing and mediocrity; conglomerate ownership and economies of scale have produced mainstream, profit-driven programming. Variations occur at the margins, certainly, but even their collective impact pales before the market share of newspaper chains, publishing empires and the assorted television, cable and entertainment giants. In contrast to these old-media oligopolies, the new, digital media–fueled by desktop production and driven by global, networked distribution–seem wildly democratic. So out with the old and in with the new; the World Wide Web awaits!
If only it were that simple. First, the old media aren't going anywhere, and their dominance in our lives–radio and TV usage still outstrip the Internet by a factor of 20-1–will continue for years. Second, the old media giants have made their presence felt online, too, establishing digital beachheads that might not be making much money (yet) but that are certainly attracting their share of online traffic. This is particularly true of the hybrid (and hydra-headed) AOL Time Warner, whose multimedia reach extends to more than 70 percent of all online users in the United States, and fully a third of all time spent online. Thus, even if the long-touted media convergence has been slow in arriving, the distinction between old media and new–particularly with regard to the impact of conglomerate culture–is largely a false one.
That's why the public-policy battles now being waged to rein in the power of the old media (many of them last-ditch efforts to limit further ownership consolidation and to make the media more publicly accountable) are important to the future of the new media as well–particularly in the areas of ownership limits, spectrum management and noncommercial programming.
A combination of successful court challenges and the ascendant deregulatory spirit in Washington has put the existing cable-ownership limits–currently 30 percent of all cable households nationwide–at risk. As a result, we now face the specter of a single company controlling access to more than half of all households. Broadcast networks and station groups (two of which have already throttled commercial radio) are also poised to tighten their grip on key TV markets by acquiring more stations, far exceeding the current 35 percent national audience limit and further eroding local news and public-affairs programming. Perhaps most alarming, the old prohibitions against one company owning both a TV station and a newspaper, or a cable system and a TV station, in the same community are also under threat. In all these instances, the public's fundamental right to "the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources" (in the words of the Supreme Court) will be jettisoned in favor of lowest-common-denominator shows assembled by the conglomerate multimedia stables. There are more media outlets than ever before, but this numerical growth, as Consumers Union has pointed out, "has not been accompanied by a comparable growth of independent, diversely owned competitive communications services and media voices."