Consolidation doesn't seem any less entertaining, it's just not as newsworthy

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I've been thinking about that conundrum called media consolidation, and it's not as easy to take a single view of it as I once thought.

Granted, it's an inevitable fact of life that small fries look to grow larger and big fish swallow up others so as to have more wiggle room -- and more money for the folks who put the deal together.

Anyway, media went through merger-mania in the late 1990s, though eventually two of the biggest amalgamations -- Time Warner AOL and Viacom-CBS -- have unraveled and decoupled, respectively.

Undeterred, other players continue to combine up and down the food chain: Lionsgate bit off Mandate, Shine took a shine to Reveille, Disney snapped up first Pixar and then Marvel, and someone at some point will buy MGM.

At the top of the ladder, you'd think there's not too much left to feed upon. Six companies control the bulk of what gets on the air in terms of entertainment, and just four -- NBC Universal, CBS, Disney-ABC and News Corp. -- control most of the country's TV news outlets.

I worry about the latter concentration more than the former.

To be sure, there are folks out there who decry the end of the indie TV writer-producer, or at least their greatly reduced ranks. Glancing recently at a donation plaque at the Paley Center in the names of Diane English and Joel Shukovsky, I thought about a bunch of talented names no longer making a mark in primetime television.

Is it the fault of consolidation or just the way of the world? Is it harder for writer-producers pushing 50, however considerable their credits, to get a meeting with network execs?

"It doesn't matter so much now what one's pedigree is," HBO programming head Michael Lombardo said during a panel discussion last week. "They've got to be in touch with the zeitgeist and have something fresh to say, a voice."

Another panelist told me later: "It's not about age -- look at David Chase, David Simon, David Milch (just to stick with the Davids). It's about what any particular writer has to offer that speaks to an audience."

Still, the tilt is toward the 18-34 demographic -- how else to explain all the vampires? But there also are a few grown-up things on network TV.

If evidence were needed that the six conglomerates have not snuffed out creativity, note the sizable audiences tuning in to fall shows including Fox's "Glee" and "The Cleveland Show" and ABC's "FlashForward."

There's much to savor in the newcomers, but also in the returnees.

Take the season opener of NBC's "Law & Order," which offered a textbook case in how to dramatize a complex issue. The seemingly intractable subject: Who should be held responsible for legally justifying, authorizing and carrying out the torture of supposed terrorists? While our news organizations seem reluctant to dig into this with any consistency, the "L&O" writers found their own way.

To hear Sam Waterston's Jack McCoy (OK, he is an unreconstructed '60s liberal) debate the side not just with the defense lawyers but with his own Assistant DA Michael Cutter (Linus Roache, who projected the feelings of those still reeling from 9/11) was invigorating television. It might be fashionable to dismiss the "L&O" franchise as long in the tooth, but it's hard to beat for the rigor of its writing and daring of its subject matter.

Let's not forget that producer Dick Wolf's company is owned by NBC Universal, which in turn is owned by General Electric.

If Entertainment is managing to belie the accusations of those who say agglomeration is stifling creativity, News is a different matter. That more young people think Jon Stewart speaks truth to power more reliably and persuasively than network news anchors is telling.

"Some time ago, journalism became the news business, which then became the media business, and we see the results," Joel Hyatt, the head of Current TV, argued last week at a Paley Center event.

Hyatt dates a noticeable nail in the coffin of network news as it once was practiced to an ABC "Nightline" report during the 2004 presidential race. Anchor Ted Koppel wheeled out the accusations against Democratic candidate John Kerry as having purposefully (and literally) shot himself in the foot to get out of Vietnam.

Asked at the time why he relayed such rumors, Koppel said they were widespread and thus newsworthy; per Hyatt, no one on the "Nightline" team had done any reporting to verify or discredit the reports.

So much now is just rehash.

What with the recession and everybody's obsession with going digital, several journalistic practices are going by the wayside. Plus, journalists themselves are being laid off at thrice the rate of other industries.

Leaving aside the pressures conglomerates might or might not exert if their interests could be affected, it takes money to do investigative reporting. Decimated by the ad downturn, fewer papers are doing in-depth reporting, it having been left to a handful of major national dailies and locally focused bloggers.

As for Current TV, one of the goals of founder Al Gore and company was to give voice to what five years ago was called user-generated content. The network has done so on the editorial and ad sides, inviting the general public to get involved before YouTube caught on and before Facebook and Twitter took off.

Now, however, everyone blogs and tweets, aggregates and comments. Investigative reporting is the niche that most needs to be served, and Current TV has shifted efforts to focus on its so-called Vanguard series.

May it spark emulators, of whatever persuasion, whatever ownership.
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