THE NIXON ADMINISTRATION saw it coming. In a stunning January 1974 report, the Nixon White House Cable Committee foretold that the new telecom platform known as cable would, eventually, be a monopoly service wherever it was offered. The committee, whose membership included Mitt Romney’s dad, George, and which was staffed by a young Antonin Scalia, called for a “separation policy.” Its chief recommendation: Control of the cable medium should be separated from control of the messages on it. A federal mandate along these lines was urgently needed, the committee said: “If the achievement of a new relationship between government and the private cable medium is not anticipated but left to chance, the free flow of diverse information and ideas that is protected by the Constitution could be endangered.”
Nixon’s plan fell victim to the lobbying efforts of the cable industry—powerful then, much more powerful now—on Capitol Hill. Today, the Cable Committee’s predictions have come true: Both the cable and wireless industries, the transport networks on which everyone else rely, are fully mature, vertically integrated, and unruffled by competition. And they’re planning to erect separate kingdoms.
Here’s how these plans are playing out this month: AT&T wants to go “direct to consumer,” as a source of both original, exclusive shows and real-time-only exclusive content like sports and news. To get as much revenue as possible from perfectly targeted ads, they’d like to avoid middlemen and directly control data about everything you’re doing and watching. As a step along this empire-enhancement path, AT&T is fighting the Department of Justice: AT&T wants to acquire Time Warner so as to control HBO, CNN, Warner Bros., and other key sources of original content, and the DOJ has sued to block the deal. AT&T wants sympathy for its “market disadvantage against vertically integrated video content suppliers like Amazon, Netflix, and Comcast/NBCU.”