Media concentration "is the reason we broke up Ma Bell," Sen. McCain told Advertising Age while campaigning in New Hampshire.
"At some point there is so much consolidation in an industry, particularly in vertical integration, that it becomes anti-competitive," he said. "If we continue to see these mergers and consolidations within this industry, it should be a matter of concern."
Sen. McCain made his remarks as criticism swirled over his intervention in a long-delayed Federal Communications Commission vote.
The candidate had, since November, sent two letters urging the FCC to speed its vote on the transfer of TV station licenses that would give Paxson Communications a needed outlet in Pittsburgh. Paxson is a McCain 2000 campaign contributor.
Sen. McCain's letters did not suggest which way the FCC should vote. The commission ultimately approved the license swap.
NOT NEW SUBJECT
Media consolidation isn't a new bully pulpit for the Arizona Republican. In 1996, Sen. McCain warned that a proposed telecommunications act allowing broadcasters to own additional stations in a market could lead to decreased competition. Last year, he criticized legislation that requires satellite companies to negotiate agreements with local stations at potentially high costs if they want to transmit local TV signals.
Now, however, the issue is getting his attention in the presidential campaign. At public town meeting forums last week, Sen. McCain rapped rising cable rates, suggesting Congress and the president needed to do more to assure competition.
Sen. McCain said he's growing more concerned about what has happened to media since passage of the '96 legislation. That law fueled massive consolidation, leaving many major markets with a single owner with more than 40% of the local radio ad market -- and some with two owners having 70% or more. A subsequent Federal Communications Commission decision last August made it possible for a single company to own more than one TV station in a market.
BUYING THE COMPETITION
"It is exactly what I predicted," said Sen. McCain. "[They] can't compete with each other, so then they buy each other."
He added that his concerns extend beyond simple ownership of stations to ownership of programming.
"Radio may be bothersome if one company owns 40%, but far more disturbing is if one company owns the programming, the station, the producers of the information. I'm worried about vertical consolidation, not just horizontal consolidation," he said.
"One of the reasons the cable companies can continue to raise their rates is they control a lot of the programming. If someone else controlled the programming, I doubt if there would have been nearly as much cost passed on to the cable subscriber."
Sen. McCain offered no immediate solution to consolidations, saying instead that as president, he would look closely at it.
"I want to get the best evaluation I can of when and at what point these mergers become anti-competitive."