Justice Department shouldn't reward Hollywood lawbreaking

In politics, where there is money, there are often problems.  

Regardless of their party affiliation, well connected companies never appear satisfied.  As demonstrated through everything from Dodd-Frank to the Renewable Fuel Standards, businesses with close political ties always seem intent on using the levers of government to reap more riches for themselves.  Hollywood shares these tendencies.  Is the Department of Justice poised to scrap Hollywood's behavioral guardrails? 

As part of a larger antitrust examination process, the DOJ is, to the joy of entertainment industry lobbyists, reviewing the federal settlement agreements, known as consent decrees, that were created in the 1940s to check the power of some of the nation's most influential movie and music executives. 

While there is never any harm in double-checking the functionality of the regulatory state at large, the Justice Department cannot afford to alter these specific agreements with Hollywood because doing so would not help anyone other than the elites who are circumventing the law today as it is. 

Before the DOJ implemented the consent decrees, the largest movie studios colluded to prevent the arrival of serious free-market competitors.  The music publishers similarly schemed together, combining into two monopolistic collectives that amassed close to every public performance license in the music marketplace.  

The Justice Department agreements that the Hollywood parties signed onto have forged a market landscape significantly better than the status quo.  Gone are the days when movie studios could engage in predatory, market-stifling distribution practices and the music collectives could use their high market share to price-gouge or charge uneven rates to businesses.  Thanks to these DOJ guardrails, competition and innovation in these industries have become increasingly fostered rather than ignored.  

However, seven decades have now passed, and so the DOJ has determined it appropriate to research these agreements and see if they are still needed.  Makan Delrahim, the head of the Antitrust Division, reportedly "dislikes behavioral remedies ... preferring structural fixes such as asset divestitures."  Although most conservatives would typically agree with Delrahim's preferences in most instances, it is hard to believe that behavioral remedies aren't still required in the case of Hollywood when the evidence points clearly to its people still engaging in anti-competitive behavior.

Take the movie industry, for example.  In late August, by rejecting a summary judgment, U.S. District Court judge Alfred Bennett set the stage for a significant battle against AMC Theaters, which is being accused of having conspired with other big companies to bankrupt an independent theater.  In May 2016, one of the two biggest music collectives also paid $1.75 million to end a DOJ probe stemming from the violation of its consent decree.  One has to wonder: would it really make sense for the Justice Department to reward lawbreakers by loosening the very restraints they are struggling to follow? 

Make no mistake about it: the DOJ's current antitrust review process can and should lead to the removal of scores of outdated, unjust regulations and laws.  However, by no means should the Department categorize the Hollywood consent decrees as such.  Contrary to what the entertainment industry lobbyists and their political action committee directors may say, these behavioral settlement agreements are the only tools the government possesses to force free-market principles back into the industry by preventing these self-serving interests from acting on their predatory impulses.

The story of their removal is not a movie that I, or any other advocate of level playing fields, should want to see.  Here's hoping we won't have to. 

Sutton Porter, a former delegate to the California GOP, is a writer, television producer, and political satirist who has worked behind and in front of the camera on radio and television with a strong focus on politics for nearly a decade.

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