Laws Against Concentrated Media Ownership Hurt, Rather Than Help

The Australian reports today that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has begun its inquiry into Fairfax’s acquisition of Southern Cross Broadcasting’s TV and radio assets.

The ACCC has been given a greater role in the regulatory adjudication of media mergers after Helen Coonan’s partial deregulation of ownership law in September last year.

For consumers, these reforms should have been welcome. Laws against concentrated media ownership hurt, rather than help, the cause of media diversity.

Media ownership laws rely on a crude, and possibly erroneous, model of the relationship between ownership and content diversity. Their premise is simple: concentration of ownership is a proxy for concentration of content.

But a growing body of empirical evidence suggests that this link is not as well established as the critics of media deregulation might assume.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, concentration of ownership can increase media diversity. A reduction of the number of owners in a newspaper market often leads to an increase in product differentiation. Firms in these situations find it is more profitable to lure consumers with new products than by trying to ape established ones.

Another classic example here is subscription television, where a single firm offers consumers dozens of highly diverse channels. But the diversity available on pay TV indicates a source of the dull homogeneity of much of Australia’s television – the protectionist management of the broadcasting spectrum. If we are serious about encouraging media diversity we should be at the very least liberalising the number of television licences.

Across the media sector, firms are searching for new business models. The announcement that PBL Media would be taken over by a private equity firm indicated just how aware ‘old media’ firms are of their new competition and their audience’s changing media consumption patterns.

In this context, media concentration and consolidation might more usefully be seen as a ‘circle the wagons’ strategy by firms in traditional markets. As audiences fragment, many firms feel that they have to expand their empires just to keep up.

This may not end up being a successful strategy. In the United States, a wave of consolidations a few years ago has been followed by widespread break-ups and divestitures.

But in such a competitive environment, these firms need to be allowed to experiment with business structures as much as possible. Applying economy-wide rather than sector-specific competition law to the industry is a step in the right direction.