BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Well, it's been an eventful week for network television, beginning with the fallout on Capitol Hill over the Super Bowl halftime show. Mel Karmazin, president of CBS parent Viacom, found himself before a House committee testifying about his own network's shock and surprise over Janet Jackson's breakaway brassiere.
MEL KARMAZIN: Nobody at CBS, nobody at Viacom, nobody at MTV, and certainly nobody at the NFL knew what was going to happen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But nobody on the House Telecommunications Subcommittee was buying it. New Mexico Republican Heather Wilson.
HEATHER WILSON: You knew -- what you were doing. You knew -- what kind of "entertainment" you're selling. And you wanted us all to be abuzz, here in this room, and on the playground in my kid's school, because it improves your ratings. It improves your market share, and it lines your pockets.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Disgusted with a broadcast culture that continues to define deviancy down, California Republican Christopher Cox suggested making broadcast television a raunch-free zone.
CHRISTOPHER COX: I will defend to my last breath your right to cuss and use foul language and run around naked with forest animals if that's what suits you. [LAUGHTER] But don't impose it on people who don't want it or on our kids who may want it but who deserve far better.
BOB GARFIELD:For the moment, the regulation of content appears to be little more than an idle threat to the networks whose immediate punishment seems to be limited to an FCC fine. A more compelling threat, however, may not be from the government at all. Last week, the Walt Disney Company, owner of ABC, ESPN and many other media properties, found itself under assault from another media corporation -- the cable giant Comcast. The Philadelphia-based company which commands more than 20 million cable subscribers launched a 54 billion dollar attempted buyout of Disney, raising the spectre of still more media consolidation. Joining us now to discuss the implications of the Comcast bid is George Mannes, senior editor of thestreet.com. George, welcome to the show.
GEORGE MANNES: Thank you for having me, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: How is Wall Street regarding this proposal so far? Enthusiasm? Something less than enthusiasm?
GEORGE MANNES: There's almost unmitigated enthusiasm from Wall Street. The first thing that happened -- it happens a lot in takeover deals -- Comcast stock went down, Disney stock went up, in fact up so high that it hints that people are hopeful, as people are, that Comcast will raise its bid for Disney. And from an operational point of view, if you look at all the analysts' reports, they all say you know this is a pretty good idea.
BOB GARFIELD:Because Comcast has the distribution channels, with more than 20 million cable subscribers, and Disney has the production facilities and the programming.
GEORGE MANNES: Right. What they talk about is Disney's content and Comcast's distribution, which other people used to call "vertical integration," but that's no longer fashionable.
BOB GARFIELD:Well I want to ask you about that, because you would think that this possibility of the ultimate vertical integration in the entertainment business, in the media business, would send off all kinds of warning bells in Washington and among public interest advocates who believe that this further media consolidation will limit the choices that viewers have down the line. Are those alarm bells going off?
GEORGE MANNES: Fast and furious. People are up in arms about this. Concentration of media has become a hot button, as we saw last year, when there was a huge popular uproar over the FCC's attempt to increase the number of broadcast stations an individual company could own. People are similarly worried about Comcast. This will be the world's largest media and entertainment company if this deal goes through, surpassing Time Warner which is up there with Viacom or the biggest.
BOB GARFIELD:According to some reports that I've read, one of the reasons Comcast got interested in this deal is they had been trying with another partner, reportedly Cox, to come up with a competitor for ESPN which is owned by Disney. They were frustrated with the fees that they as as owners of cable systems were having to pay Disney for ESPN programming and were thinking about starting a competitive channel. Failing that, they are going after the owners of ESPN, and clearly if they take over Disney are not going to bother to create a, a competitive channel, which means less sports choice for viewers. Isn't this pretty much the essence of why the Cassandras are saying the sky is falling?
GEORGE MANNES: I don't know that it's anti-consumer in the classical sense that let's say prices will be raised. It is certainly anti-consumer in the way that you put it -- that the number of choices will probably diminish. If you want to launch a new cable channel, it's going to be really easy to do it if you're Comcast. It's going to be a little harder to do it if you're not Comcast and you have to ask Comcast for permission to get on their cable systems. And what Comcast might do here is what people like John Malone did in the 1980s and 1990s which was to say, sure you can get on my system, but I certainly would like a ownership stake in your channel.
BOB GARFIELD:Some months ago, Michael Eisner and Disney were in some trouble. Things have stabilized somewhat. The stock price is up, and in fact Comcast, it appears, is willing to pay essentially retail for the Disney asset. Do you think that presages other takeover attempts of other very large media companies like Viacom, for example, by others with distribution who want to merge distribution and content?
GEORGE MANNES: A deal similar to what is being discussed here just took place when Rupert Murdoch gained control of Direct TV, the satellite broadcaster in the United States. That was marrying content with distribution on a big scale but a smaller scale than this. NBC is probably going to merge with Vivendi Universal Entertainment, so it's going to keep going. It'll leapfrog.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, George. Well, as they say when you dial Disney, have a magical day.
GEORGE MANNES: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: George Mannes is a senior writer for thestreet.com.