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By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

The year 2004 was one of unusual stability for media owners. After a decade of consolidation, the level of acquisition of activity was the lowest in years.

History will probably recall Michael Powell as an ironic force in stalling consolidation. Powell’s attempts as FCC chairman to take deregulation to new heights were halted by Congress in 2003 and blocked by the courts in 2004. He resigned in 2005, and there are signs that the commission will begin redrafting its approach.

In television, General Electric acquired a studio company, Vivendi Universal, to feed its broadcast operations, though such combinations have proved difficult for Disney to manage with ABC. Online, AOL fell down the list of the top 20 Web sites, while Google News rose, and wire services like Reuters and The Associated Press were moving toward delivering news directly to consumers, not just through news organizations. And in radio, two Spanish-language companies, Entravision and Univision, moved into the top 20 owners.

But the forces behind conglomeration are powerful. For one, buying other companies is the fastest and easiest way to make a company grow, something that Wall Street tends to enjoy, at least initially. For another, there continues to be a sense that as audiences fragment, owners can still sell a mass audience to advertisers by aggregating it under a corporate roof and offering package advertising deals. The fact that many deals prove more difficult in practice than in planning, as AOL and Time Warner discovered, seems less powerful than the money to be made up front by almost everyone involved.