The debate on media competition constantly keep returning to television. Yeah, there's a declining newspaper industry and a robust radio business. There are thousands of book and magazine publishers. Oh yeah, the Internet. But the 600 pounds gorilla in the room is always television.
So lets look at what really matters in TV land, eyeballs.
Over the period 1960 to 1980, there commercial broadcast networks dominated the television landscape. The were ABC, CBS and NBC . On average during that period that had a combined prime time rating of 56%. That is 56% of all households with television sets were tuned to one of those networks on a average weekday night.
But with the development of cable, competition from new networks, videos and other distractions, the audience share of those big three networks has declined steadily. By 2003, the three old broadcast networks were averaging only a 38% rating. But, you note, these networks have become part of larger media conglomerates, with extensive cable holdings.
I added up all the networks owned by each of the media conglomerates: Viacom includes CBS, Nickelodeon, MTV, TNN, BET, TV Land, among others. Besides ABC Disney owns ESPN, Disney Channel, , Minority interests in others. I added the still pending combination of USA Networks with NBC. Add to the mix the Fox Networks, which did not exist until 1986, along with Fox News, FX, et al. An Time Warner, which started the WB network to add to CNN, TNT, HBO and the like. These five entities combined has a prime time audience rating in December 2003 that was 5% less than the rating of three networks pre cable, pre-Fox.
Call me what you will (except late for dinner). But that looks to me like despite all the mergers and acquisitions in the television business, there is greater competition, less concentration, than in old days of highly regulated broadcast television. The old dominate networks are getting fewer eyeballs relative to the population, not more. And to do it they are having to produce a wide range of programming in order to satisfy not only the middle of the road mass market but the many niche markets, from all news to wrestling, that had been underserved in the good old days.
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