Susan Crawford’s Captive Audience

Susan Crawford’s Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age poses as its guiding research question, why did U.S. regulators allow the country’s largest cable company, Comcast, to purchase major film and television producer NBC Universal [NBCU], and what are the implications of this merger for Americans? Positioning this merger within the larger trend towards conglomeration within the contemporary media industries, Crawford offers a keen historical perspective on regulatory agencies and the ideologies that guide their work. Captive Audience argues that the growing monopoly power of Internet service providers [ISPs] like Comcast endangers the public’s access to crucial communication technologies because broadband is a privately-held, corporate-controlled commodity, free from the common carrier regulations that have defined broadcasting. 

Though Comcast is Crawford’s focal company, she also includes case studies of failed mergers (AOL-Time Warner, Inc. and AT&T/T-Mobile); the future of Netflix; the growing practice of distributors claiming exclusive rights to sports programming; and the relationship between cable and wireless Internet providers. This excerpt from Captive Audience is indicative of one of the book’s most notable contributions: its accessibility. In these few pages, Crawford contextualizes Comcast’s lobbying team’s preparations for a Senate Antitrust Subcommittee meeting through a description of the company’s executive vice president of policy, David Cohen, and his efforts to appeal to regulators through their pet projects and priorities.

As demonstrated in the excerpt, the book provides short portraits of its “main characters,” from Comcast leader Brian Roberts to former FCC Chairmen, Michael Powell and Julius Genachowski; these portraits personalize each case study and demonstrate why regulators may have reasonable goals but fail utterly to protect the public interest. Through her confident writing style, Crawford explains complex topics such as the history of retransmission consent and the differences between vertical and horizontal corporate mergers, between wired and wireless Internet regulation, and between content and conduit. 

Ultimately, Crawford’s book is an indictment of lax government agencies and corporations that serve stockholders at the expense of their customers: “Where incumbents act as gatekeepers, new technology will not emerge without regulatory help that creates a level playing field for competition and the free flow of information,” she insists (62). Crawford’s book powerfully argues for regulatory oversight that will expand access to the Internet, increase speeds, and mandate a division between companies that produce content and those that distribute it. 

Crawford, Susan. Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age. New Haven: Yale UP, 2013.


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