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Culture

Dreams of big media

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says the proposed Comcast-Disney combo is just another in a line of big power grabs that rob consumers of alternatives.

"This is a unique opportunity for all shareholders of Comcast and Disney to create a new leader of the entertainment and communications industry," Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said in a statement, announcing his company's unsolicited $54.1 billion bid for Disney on Wednesday.

Disney's Michael Eisner remained out of the public eye all day--good thing too; I hate it when grown men cry. Like any self-respecting mogul with an ingrained sense of entitlement, Eisner believes that he's the brightest bulb on the block. No matter what Roy Disney Jr. might think, he wants to run the company until the day he takes his mouse ears to the great theme park in the sky. Eisner also knows, just as sure as the sun rises in the east, that he'll get booted, should Comcast carry the day.

Even without any wardrobe malfunctions along the way, this is the stuff of great entertainment. But this is about much more than the respective delusions of grandeur sundry that big shots entertain. The real story is what you and I stand to lose in a world that's consuming more and more of its news and entertainment from fewer and fewer outlets.

Big media is not going to wind up as a campaign issue this fall. That's too bad, because the ongoing consolidation of the media business strikes at the heart of the quaint idea that access to independent sources of information is the lifeblood of any republic.

The real story is what you and I stand to lose in a world consuming more and more of its news and entertainment from fewer and fewer outlets.
That was, at least, how folks used to think about the subject. But go argue with the market. Even though choices are narrowing, the trend is to emulate the News Corp.-DirecTV and America Online-Time Warner mergers.

Bigger isn't always better, but I doubt whether any of that is likely to exercise Michael Powell's Federal Communications Commission or John Ashcroft's Department of Justice. My guess that is proponents can clinch the deal by arguing that it will generate increased shareholder value--the narrow catch-all prism through which business gets viewed--and pledge not to abuse their expanded privilege. Since taking over at the FCC, Powell has been doing a great impersonation of a well-fed somnambulist. This is also the same Justice Department that let Microsoft waltz away from its predatory monopoly conviction with a feeble slap on the wrist.

While shareholders may quibble about the final price, the arguments in favor of the proposed combination do appear to be more rooted in reality than when Steve Case and Gerald Levin concocted their grandiose idea for AOL Time Warner. This pairing, which is not nearly as loopy, seeks to bring together some quite valuable assets. On the one hand, there's Comcast, with its 21 million subscribers. On the other, there's Disney and a vast content empire that includes ABC, ESPN and two movie studios. Toss high-speed Internet and other high-tech businesses like video on demand into the mix, and you get the picture. Sauron and the orcs in Mordor could only wish that they had had that good a roster before the big finale.

You can see the synergy of this colossus in the works. But such a corporate boardroom would wield inordinate power. Even more astonishing is that it will all likely go down with nary a ripple of protest.