01/19/2011 04:07 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

How Big Is Too Big?

Forty years ago, the federal government ruled that broadcast networks could no longer own cable systems or syndicate their own programming to television stations after they had appeared on the network. CBS, which owned cable systems in many areas of America and was a major force in program syndication, was forced to spin off both divisions in a new company called Viacom. The government believed that network broadcasters were too big, had too much influence, and that their control over media must be restricted.

Today, the FCC ruled that Comcast, by far the largest of all cable system companies with more than 22 million subscribers, can take control of NBC Universal, Inc. NBC Universal not only owns a broadcast network, but also owns Universal Motion Pictures, cable programming networks like USA, MSNBC, CNBC, SyFy, Bravo, as well as the Weather Channel and the Spanish language network Telemundo, in additional to ten broadcast television stations, many of them in the largest markets in the United States. It is apparent that the FCC no longer believes that combining the largest cable company in America with one of the largest television networks in America poses a problem. The combination will not, in the eyes of the FCC, have too much influence.

What has happened in the last forty years? Some television executives believe that the Nixon Administration restrictions were politically motivated--the Administration revenging itself on the three broadcast networks, which had criticized the President about the Vietnam War. But others say the networks were just way too big (they controlled radio as well as TV) and had to be reined in. If that's the case, let's look at existing conditions:

Over the last forty years, since the networks were reined out of the cable business, the cable network audience has grown larger than the audience of the four major American networks combined. Comcast owns about one fifth of the homes in that cable audience, and will shortly own cable networks that average 5% of all cable watching. Somehow or other, that seems to me like something big enough to worry about. It's a company that will be able to offer more viewers to advertisers than any other company in America. It's a company that controls world-class programming, movies, broadcast and cable, and has the power to sell it at prices it sets to delivery systems throughout the world.

Nothing like it has ever been seen before, and I think it's too big to be trusted to do good.