America's Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 in favour of dramatic new legislation designed to reflect the new media world order by, erm, allowing the established players to become more established.
The new US legislation means that the country's biggest media players can now get a bit bigger. Fox, CBS and NBC can nudge up to 45% of the national audience from the current 35% limit. Rules preventing companies owning a newspaper and a TV or radio station in the same local market have also been lifted. In a blinding bit of American logic, the FCC chairman, Michael Powell, said the new rules would promote diversity and competition.
Wall Street has welcomed the changes because of the deal-making to follow. With organic growth hard to magic, piling on shareholder value through acquisition is the only route left.
Viacom and News Corp are likely to be key movers now the binds are off; in fact, Viacom and News Corp's Fox Entertainment have already bust the 35% limit.
But America being America, these changes have been attacked by activists as weakening the very fabric of democracy. Scrape away the mouth-foam and there is a sound argument to be made against allowing the influential media of the biggest consumer market in the world to be controlled by a handful of major players, though in truth that's already pretty much the case anyway.
The danger is that this handful of media companies could soon become our handful, too. Coincidence, perhaps, but the culture secretary, Tessa Jowell, also grabbed headlines this week with a renewed determination to push through our own Communications Bill, which could lift restrictions on foreign (and, most pertinently, US) ownership of UK media. Jowell insisted she would not give in to the critics -- led by Lords Puttnam, Bragg and Ali -- who are seeking to rein in the Bill and prevent UK media companies falling into foreign hands.
But there seems little doubt that once the major American players have hit the 45% US ceiling they'll be driving expansion even harder overseas. And the UK will be both a prime acquisition target and also an obvious dumping ground for more US programming.
With the Carlton/Granada merger here descending below farce, and Michael Green and Charles Allen reportedly barely on civil terms, the chances of ITV having the wherewithall to fend off an overseas predator look anorexic. It's time for the poodle to turn and reconsider some protection for UK media against foreign invaders.
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