Welcome to Disney's world

THE BALTIMORE SUN

HAVING DOMESTICATED the Lion King and the Beast and successfully annexed a piece of 42nd Street in New York City, the Walt Disney Co. lacked only a big TV network to secure its empire.

Acquiring Capital Cities/ABC Inc. was a deal at a mere $19 billion.

After all, back in 1986 when the media merger frenzy first got under way, General Electric paid $6.5 billion for the RCA Corp. -- which owns NBC -- and just two years ago Bell Atlantic offered $33 billion in a failed bid for Tele-Communications Inc., the largest cable company in the world.

The fashionable term for all this vertical and lateral corporate integration is synergy, but synergy turns out to be just another word for monopoly.

The Disney acquisition is the latest manifestation of irresistible global economic and technological forces demanding integration and uniformity. Mass producers are mesmerizing people everywhere with fast music, fast computers, fast food and fast images, assembling nations into a network tied together by communications, information, entertainment and commerce.

Disney is a pre-eminent leader in this booming market. With films, books, theme parks, trademark tie-ins and now Capital Cities/ABC as its subsidiary, the company is poised to become "the greatest entertainment company in the next century," as its chairman, Michael Eisner, rightly boasted on Monday.

In fact, Mr. Eisner understated the truth. An employee of ABC's corporate health and safety division came closer when he gushed that "combining two world-class corporations" begets one "universe-class operation."

And Disney has as good a chance as any company to dominate this cosmic market. Its goods are as much images as products, creating a common world taste that is identifiably American.

Music, video, films, theater, books and theme parks are the outposts of this civilization in which malls are the public squares, gated suburbs are the neighborless neighborhoods and computer screens the virtual communities.

Disney has simply followed the modern corporate imperative to own deep and own wide. If you own movie studios, buy book companies and theme parks and sports teams -- Paramount acquiring Simon & Schuster, Viacom buying Paramount.

If you own hardware, buy software -- Sony trying to swallow Columbia. If you own TV stations, buy film libraries -- Turner and MGM. Or if you own a studio and a film library, get yourself a big network.

The distinctions between information and entertainment, software and hardware, product and distribution are fading fast anyway.

The Baby Bells, set loose by a government increasingly sidelined by the Republican Congress and its deregulatory telecommunications bill, are invading the territory of cable TV even as long-distance companies retake local telephone turf.

For the companies, synergy -- monopoly -- is just good business. Microsoft's chairman, Bill Gates, knows that the software programs and patents he controls, though spectacularly successful, will be worth exponentially more teamed up with the creative ideas that drive Hollywood and Madison Avenue.

That's why he went into business with Jeffrey Katzenberg -- late of Disney! -- Steven Spielberg and David Geffen to create Dreamworks, a natural rival to the new Disney-ABC conglomerate.

Consolidation has its advantages. For one thing, it should allow national-decline pessimists like the historian Paul Kennedy to stop worrying so much.

In the world created by Disney, Viacom and Time Warner, ideas, information and images are of potentially far greater value than computer hardware or durable goods. Japanese computer programs have yet to pose a threat to the likes of Mr. Gates, any more than German sitcoms discomfit the TV producer Steven Bochco.

And Disney's amusements are much more than amusing. Amusement is itself an ideology. It offers a vision of life that, for all the protests over sex and violence in the content, is curiously attractive and bland.

"Pocahontas" with its echoes in theme parks and tie-ins at Burger King weave mythic stories around cartoon identities that seem to celebrate multiculturalism even as they eradicate real difference.

Whether Disney knows it or not, it is buying much more than our leisure time. It has a purchase on our values, on how we feel and think and what we think about.

The real question raised by this latest media merger is inevitably about us. Do Americans want simply to be spectators and consumers of the synergy frenzy that is turning entertainment and media into a subsidiary of a handful of conglomerates like Disney?

Do we really wish to refuse the despised government, our only ally, some measure of control over the new information and entertainment "trusts"? Where do we look for help as we busily dismantle our regulatory institutions?

As it stands poised on the edge of the 21st century, Disney seems to aim at a 19th-century world of conglomeration in which the government sits back and watches.

Mr. Eisner is no Rockefeller and Mr. Gates is no Vanderbilt and Mr. Spielberg is no Carnegie: This trio is far more powerful. How are they to be rendered responsible and accountable?

After all, theirs is power not over oil, steel and railroads but over pictures, information and ideas.

Whose world do we want it to be -- Disney's or ours?

Benjamin R. Barber is author of "Jihad vs. McWorld: How the Planet is Falling Apart and Coming Together."

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