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Memphis Flyer Reunited

What will happen when CBS and Viacom get back together?

By Jim Hanas

SEPTEMBER 20, 1999:  Regulation tore them apart and now deregulation is bringing them back together. Last week's proposed merger between CBS and cable giant Viacom is like Liz Taylor's second marriage to Richard Burton. We've been down this road before, and in more ways than one.

In a literal sense, CBS and Viacom are being reunited. Viacom was spun off by the Tiffany network in the '70s, when federal regulators ruled that networks could not own their own programming. Those rules have since been lifted, making way for the offspring to gobble up its parent.

In another sense, the new deal is a rerun of Disney's buyout of ABC a few years ago. Both mergers are examples of a trend that has seen companies that are in the business of creating content buying up more and more media outlets, often with unsightly results.

One of the least appetizing dishes served up by the Disney/ABC partnership has been hour-long television specials shamelessly plugging each new Disney blockbuster. Who can forget ABC's semi-serious special report on the likelihood of a killer asteroid careening into the Earth, timed for the release of, and complete with footage from, the Disney/Miramax asteroid-death movie Armageddon? Had the Viacom/CBS deal happened a year and a half ago, CBS would surely have had a similarly chilling exposé to go along with Deep Impact, the asteroid-death movie co-produced by Viacom subsidiary Paramount.

Luckily, the time only recently turned ripe for the priciest media merger in history. Lifting the rules on networks owning their own programming was a precondition, as was the FCC's recent decision to allow companies to own multiple television stations in some markets. Without the latter, CBS's and Viacom's respective station groups would have been unwieldy to merge.

But merge they will, all up and down the dial. Viacom's cable properties include MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon, Nick at Nite, Comedy Central, TV Land, Showtime, Sundance Channel, and UPN, which will likely be sold off in the course of the deal to few tears of remorse.

Disney has bundled all of its networks, including ABC, ESPN, and ESPN2 under the aegis of the Go Network, a stultifying branding move that seems unintended to mean anything in the present, but to be on call in the indefinite future when cable, broadcast, and Internet are smelted into a single shiny stream of information.

CBS/Viacom will almost certainly turn to such cross-pollinations and semantic amalgams to compete with the strong foothold NBC has gained in cable and on the Internet through MSNBC and its partnership with Microsoft. But more interesting is the reversal the television business has undergone in the last half-century, a reversal that puts the "information" in "Information Age."

Once upon a time, information was just a way to sell appliances, and small ones at that: radios and later televisions. It was General Electric and Westinghouse, after all, who founded NBC, and who -- at this second at least -- own two of the big three networks. The receivers called the shots.

Then it was the distributors, the networks themselves and their affiliates, who served as the conduits of power, until finally information itself -- content -- has seized the portholes, securing for itself a way into the world. It's what Bill Gates understood that Steve Jobs didn't. We're not in the appliance-selling business anymore.

Of course, the FCC had good reasons for keeping the portholes and the information separated. Apart, they had to compete with each other in a game of checks and balances. Together, information never again has to worry that it won't have any place to go, which is why the Disneys and Viacoms of the world have a stake in acquiring new, ready-made markets for their wares, which will eventually glut the pipeline altogether.

And for some reason, the FCC has been all too happy to change its mind, to undo the regulations of several decades in just a few years, reinsituting the troublesome monopolies that regulation was intended to prevent.

To paraphrase Dennis Miller, consumers should regard the CBS/Viacom merger like the prospect of a Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis reunion.

I mean, were you all that crazy about their earlier work?

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