BROOKE GLADSTONE: Media consolidation was a big theme in 2002 and it looks like it's also an accurate prediction for 2003 - at least in the TV industry. Popular cable channels are up for grabs in the new year as media giants get ready to swap networks. Viacom is eyeing USA, Comedy Central and the Sci-Fi Channel, and ABC may soon be the sole owner of A&E, to name just a few prospective deals. Niche programming has made these small cable channels into household names, and according to OTM regular Max Robbins of TV Guide, new ownership can mean big changes in content.
MAX ROBBINS:Once upon a time there was something called The Nashville Network -- TNN. Well when it became part of the Viacom family, all of a sudden it became something called The National Network and you were trading the Grand Old Opry for the Worldwide Wrestling Federation. I mean that's a bit of a change I'd say, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:That's definitely a big one. We were talking last week about BET. It was sold to Viacom; people were afraid that Black Entertainment Television would lose sight of part of its mission which was to inform people about issues of particular interest to black Americans, and of course we heard recently that they're canceling a couple of their important news programs. Viacom seems to be the company that is up to pick up a lot of these little cable stations. Do you think that means that there's going to be wholesale changes in format like what happened to The Nashville Network or something more subtle?
MAX ROBBINS:Given the network's in play, it'll probably be more subtle than that. Another network in play is Court TV, and again there it would probably be just some tinkering with what they're doing now, and actually what they're doing successfully.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Well here's what I'm still not clear about. What is the impact then of this further consolidation in cable -- these three big companies buying up whatever little independent channels are left. Is that going to make the programming better or worse?
MAX ROBBINS:It's really a hodgepodge, Brooke. I mean you used the example of Viacom and BET, and it hasn't made BET better, and a lot of people expected it would. With this infusion of cash, BET could become much more vital than it, than it had been throughout its history. It didn't happen. However you do see these situations where major corporations are in control and they let -- as AOL Time Warner has done historically with HBO -- let them really -- given them a lot of rope! MTV, which is part of that Viacom family, too, is doing a lot of innovative programming; all that might not be my taste, but hey, I thought the Osbournes was a lot of fun in 2002.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One of the big deals of 2002 that wasn't was the proposed merger of ABC News and CNN. Is it going to happen in 2003?
MAX ROBBINS:People inside both organizations give it better than a 50-50 shot. A lot of people see this as a way for the Walt Disney Company, ABC's parent, to get out of the news business! They would rather be in entertainment! They see more profit in it. You know when you talk to people who have gone from ABC News to CNN -- I had a conversation with Jeff Greenfield who did just that -- and he said the first thing you're struck by at CNN is how lean an organization it is, and they don't put by and large the same kind of money into production and presenting the news - the - kind of the television part of TV news. However, they do have a much greater commitment to covering the world, and perhaps there is an up side to that. But I've talked to a lot of people inside ABC News who feel that this is really going to be-- perhaps even like the demise of a show like Nightline -- it no longer will have a place on ABC. They can push it off onto CNN where it has less distribution; gets less promotion and thus is less important.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It may be good for CNN?
MAX ROBBINS:It may be in that they get the cream of the crop of ABC news to bolster that network. It may make them more competitive and give them a chance to once again regain their dominant position in the 24 hour news business, something that Fox now holds. But I'm not sure that ultimately this consolidation is a good thing for viewers --less diversity and less competition. That doesn't mean better news.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, Max. Thanks very much.
MAX ROBBINS: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Max Robbins writes The Robbins Report for TV Guide. [MUSIC]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Coming up next, who says what about whom on the web sparks lawsuits. Also new -- internet courtrooms. This is On the Media from NPR.