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Small World After All?

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“Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck. Mickey Mouse, Donald
Duck. Mickey Mouse … Holy (rhymes with) Duck.”
That may have been the tune being hummed around
the very prolific hallways of the Disney empire.
Imagine the quiet confidence you might feel riding
along in your boat as it passes the many Pirates
of the Caribbean for the umpteenth time. Then
suddenly, from within one of the familiar galleys,
out pops a pirate who happens to have the backing
of about $66 billion (and brother that buys a
whole lot of cannonballs). That may have been the
way Disney’s head man Michael Eisner felt Wednesday
morning when he and the rest of the business and
media worlds awoke to a very public offer from
Comcast CEO Brian Roberts that read in part, “It
is unfortunate that you are not willing to
[discuss a merger]. Given this, the only way for
us to proceed is to make a public proposal
directly to you and your board.”

As discomforting as that correspondence may have
been for Michael Eisner (under whose watch
Disney’s progress has recently been about as
smooth as ride on the Big Thunder Mountain
Railroad), what are the broader implications for
the viewing public if the deal goes through? First,
one must absorb the enormity of the prospect that
a cable company might be about to pick up one
America’s most popular and long-lasting content
brands. Have we entered into an age where the pipe
owners are truly kings? And what happens to
content when it’s controlled by parent companies
more familiar with building infrastructure than a
decent prime time line-up? Perhaps more
importantly, are we really willing to cede control
of Mickey, Minnie and the gang (not to mention
ESPN, ABC, E! Network, Movie and animation
studios, theme parks, and several other well-known
brands) to the cable guys?

How scary would a cable-guy owned Disney be? Well
just to start, the Disney theme parks would now
inform customers only that they would be open for
business during a window sometime between 10am and 5pm.
And from now on, anytime Goofy bends over, we can expect to
his pants slide at least halfway down his JLo.

It’s too early to know whether this will become a
done deal. First, Disney executives would have to
be sufficiently convinced or pressured to take the
offer. Second, the union would need to get
regulatory approval. The FCC’s Michael Powell
(during a split second departure from his
obsession with Janet’s frontage) explained: I
don’t know if Comcast will get Disney or not …

If it does, a merger of that magnitude will
unquestionably go through the finest filter at the
commission, I can assure you, as possible.” Of
course that’s the same fine filter that let
microscopic particles such as News Corp and
AOL-TimeWarner slip through.

On one hand the trend of media consolidation is
extremely disturbing. We are seeing major mergers
in music, movies and most importantly the
development of these mega-machines that own both
the pipes into our homes and the content that is
pushed through those pipes (I don’t have that much
control over my own digestive system!). That means
more and more content in the hands of fewer and
fewer distributors. We already have limited
viewpoints when it comes to news, ranging from
bland (CNN, network news) to absurd (Fox). And it
could potentially get worse. (I’m not sure,
however, that primetime network television could).

But this massive media conglomeration is not
taking place in a vacuum. It is taking place in a
webified world where the sources of quality and
increasingly powerful content continue to emerge
at a truly inspiring pace. The coverage of the
presidential election process provides a clear
case in point. Much of the most interesting,
entertaining, analytical and even popular coverage
is coming from individual weblogs. There was a
time when these individual or group
micropublishers spent much of their efforts on
linking to the mainstream publications. But
increasingly, those big time newspapers are
referring to content and stories and angles that
are emerging from one guy at a keyboard. There are
plenty of webloggers out there who have thousands
if not hundreds of thousands of visitors a week
(and how many individual reporters from major
publications can state the same with confidence?).
And it’s not just politics. In topic areas such as
tech news, gossip, entertainment and even the
coverage of media itself, there are individuals
and small groups who have an increasing impact on
the nature of the discourse.

This is not to suggest that the media-merger trend
is not on many levels disturbing. We don’t want to
end up in a world with only two channels: Gospel
TV and Midriff TV. And we don’t want a media world
in which the views of a handful limit what
journalistic diversity is still left in the
mainstream media. When it comes to the diversity
of ideas piped into our living rooms, it’s already
a small, small world, after all.

Dave Pell writes Electablog

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