Comcast Corp. (CMCSK) CEO Brian L. Roberts' $66 billion bid for Walt Disney Co. (DIS) calls Rupert Murdoch's hand in the media poker game now under way. By uniting America's largest cable company with one of the world's biggest media and entertainment companies, Roberts -- if successful -- is betting he can go head to head against Murdoch's giant News Corp.
His move is the latest in the growing consolidation of the media industry and pits Big Cable (Comcast) against Big Satellite (News Corp., which recently bought DirecTV) in a race to dominate the distribution of programming -- and the content -- flowing into America's homes. This concentration of media ownership threatens diversity in news and other programming. Maintaining that diversity should be a key goal for Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael K. Powell and Congress. That, in turn, will require safeguards, as well as a new effort to roll out broadband.
There is good news. Even as media ownership consolidates, media content is fragmented, adding to the diversity and quality of programming, both news and entertainment. Powell and others extol the ability of the Internet to bring information and entertainment from around the world to Americans. To him, the Net's potential makes the consolidation of "old media" less worrisome. Yet most Americans still rely on a few media sources, which are being absorbed into giant conglomerates willing to flex their muscle. Murdoch has used his clout to drive down prices of competitors' programming and open up access for his shows on their cable networks. This isn't exactly classic free-market competition. And Murdoch, unlike many other media stewards, uses his outlets to promote his political agenda.
As a condition for approving the Comcast deal for Disney, the FCC should insist on certain safeguards. At the least, it should impose the same restrictions on Roberts that were put on Murdoch when he bought DirecTV -- not to discriminate against rival programmers and muscle their shows off his cable networks and to submit to arbitration if competitors accuse him of yanking popular Disney shows in contract disputes. Consolidation, if it must happen, requires scrutiny.