May 11, 2000: I Have Seen the Future

I have seen the future and I don’t like what I see.

It is called mega-merger and resulted in the recent fight between a Mickey Mouse organization, called Walt Disney Company and the Looney Tunes bunch at AOL/Time Warner/Ted Turner, or whatever their name is this week.

Time Warner had a dispute with Disney over programming issues so they decided to even the score by pulling the plug on Disney’s ABC subsidiary in those areas of the country served by their cable system.  Fortunately, a temporary truce was crafted and for the time being, customers can watch ABC on Time Warner cable but this is not going to be the last fight between those who provide programming and those who distribute it and there is nothing you and I can do about it.

What happened between these two behemoths ought to be of great concern to you.  I’m not just talking about missing, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”  I am talking about information control.  Your ability to get unfettered news from unbiased sources is rapidly disappearing with the current media mega-mergers. Disney owns ABC.  Viacom owns CBS.  General Electric owns NBC.  Time Warner owns Turner, CNN, and Time Magazine.  These are multibillion-dollar conglomerates in control of networks, programming, movies, publishing.  They control what you can see, hear and read.  I also am not comforted by the fact that the Chicago Tribune just bought the Los Angeles Times and that the New York Times bought the Boston Globe.  We are on the way to a national monopoly on information.

It is not just the media mergers that scare me.  It is the whole trend toward bigness.  When divestiture of the Bell System occurred in 1984, there were seven new companies created to compete in the telecommunications marketplace.  Today, there are four, going on three.  Bell Atlantic bought Nynex first and GTE next.  Southwestern Bell, now SBC, swallowed up PacTel and Ameritech.  Somebody named Global Crossing is absorbing US West.  That leaves my alma mater, BellSouth, once the largest of the Baby Bells and now a middleweight, except for its wireless operations which have just been merged with SBC’s.

The same thing is happening in the banking, insurance and automobile industries as well.  Everybody is saying they have to get bigger in order to compete in the international marketplace.

Know what happens when everybody gets bigger?  You and I get smaller as a priority.  Anybody who thinks we are going to be better served by mega-mergers is either naïve or is writing the conglomerate’s press releases.  When was the last time you called a large company and got a human being on the other end?  When was the last time you got called back to see if your complaint had been handled to your satisfaction?   You and I are expensive to companies and wasting assets like people on us is not a good use of their resources.  As a matter of fact, people are a tremendous cost to business and the less of them you have, the better.  If we need to talk to someone, we can just punch a bunch of numbers on the telephone.  That’s a lot better on the bottom line.

I called an Atlanta-based organization last week and after banging numbers to get where I thought I wanted to go and not getting there, I pushed “0” for the operator.  I waited through 27 rings.  On the 28th, I was answered and instructed to hold.  I held for seven seconds short of four minutes.  Then I was transferred to my requested department and got another recording!  I’ve got to think that this outfit feels pretty good about the money it is saving in personnel costs.  Hopefully, they never have to call themselves on the telephone.

Companies wax eloquent that bigness means more customer choice.   I don’t agree.  It means more choice from fewer sources.  It reminds me of an old line from Bell System monopoly days.  You can have any choice of telephone color you want – just as long as it is black.  Looks like those days are coming back.

Two days before the Disney Time-Warner fight, Steve Case, CEO of AOL, which has bought Time-Warner, said, “Business development and social responsibility must go hand-in-hand.  Look beyond making money in order to build a medium we can be proud of.”   Then his cable company pulled the plug on its customers.

In the early 1900’s, robber baron Cornelius Vanderbilt said, “The public be damned.”  At least he was honest about it.