Monday, March 31, 2008

Is the Justice Department Sirius about this monopoly business

Just when you thought the Justice Department couldn't sink any lower, the folks charged with, among other things, protecting common folks like you and men from the predators that come with monopolies, put their stamp of approval on the merger of Sirius and XM satellite radio, giving them permission to form ... er, ah ... a monopoly.

The reasoning behind this decision is that common folks like you and me still have access to iPods and Internet radio, so this merger isn't really a monopoly. This makes as much sense as saying all auto manufacturers can merge into one company because there will still be bus, rail and airlines to provide alternatives to consumers.

The problem with monopolies goes beyond the obvious ones of denying consumers choices and allowing providers of these services to slowly jack up prices. I imagine there is some technique available for me to download Bob Dylan's satellite radio program to my iPod, but something in the back of my head still makes me feel the source for this download will be satellite radio.

But here's my real issue with the Justice Department's reasoning. I lived in London for a year when every British citizen was at the mercy of the BBC. There was one television station in all of England -- the BBC -- and two radio stations, BBC 1 and BBC 2. The programming on them was awful. BBC-TV gave us, for the most part, droll newscasts, financial reports and documentaries that made fifth grade health education films look like "C.S.I." There were probably three quality hours of TV per week, "Dangerman," an American import that wasn't good enough to get airtime on American television and the equivalent of Masterpiece Theater. As for BBC radio, well, let me put it this way: As someone Bruce Springsteen characterized as "a prisoner of rock and roll," BBC radio was a complete wasteland. If it wasn't for the thriving club scene the world may have never heard of the Beatles, the Stones, Cream, John Mayall, the Yardbirds et al. You never heard them on legitimate British radio.

But, you see, the BBC didn't have to cater to popular tastes because there were no real alternatives. OK, according to the Justice Department reasoning, there was London's great theater, the cinema and the clubs; but when you're driving from London to Birmingham or Manchester for a football game, you can't turn on the theater, the cinema or the clubs in your car.

That's the danger behind the XM and the Sirius merger. Each one of them offers distinct programming. According to my son, who is a student of the offerings of each, if you're a baseball fan, XM would be your choice because it carries broadcasts of every single game played every single day. However, if you're more of a fan of the NBA, like he is, Sirius is the only alternative. So, if we now have one station known as Xirius, you might get both major league baseball and the NBA, but at the expense of some fringe offerings that appeal only to weirdoes like me. (I never been able to find one Dallas radio station that I can listen to for more than 20 minutes at one sitting without it driving me absolutely bonkers. I've always dreamed of starting my own satellite radio station that played "my music." It would also broadcast all Dallas City Council agenda meetings, briefing sessions and committee meetings, as well as all Dallas Mavericks basketball games and University of Texas football games. Admittedly, it might not have much of a listenership, but it's satellite radio so it doesn't matter. But a merger of the two providers, by definition, cuts the total amount of offerings in half and guess which half my station will fall into.)

Earlier I said this merger makes as much sense as a merger of all the automakers. Think, for a moment, what such a merger might mean, especially if they all merged under the Chevrolet brand. A lot of those little niceties we find in our automobiles today would disappear. The company wouldn't have to provide them. You take what the manufacturer offers you, or you go by bus, train or plane. All the innovations we've seen in the automobile industry -- from safety features, to fuel efficiencies, to improved repair records, such as they are -- have come about because of competition. They certainly didn't come from the kindness of the automakers' hearts.

I guess I can always hold out hope that the F.C.C. will not allow the merger to go through. The good news is that when the commission granted the two satellite licenses, it actually issued an edict that would seem to prohibit them from merging. The bad news is that the same type of political hacks President Bush has named to the Justice Department also now populate the F.C.C. because of his appointments. So while I can hold out hope, I'm certainly not holding my breath.

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