Some questions and answers about media ownership rules and proposed changes to them that the Federal Communications Commission will consider June 2:
Q: What are the rules?
A: Adopted between 1941 and 1975, they limit how many newspapers and television and radio stations a company can own, and in what combinations. The rules were created to promote diversity of opinion, encourage competition and prevent a few big companies from controlling what people see, hear and read.
Current rules ban mergers between major television networks -- NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox -- and limit the number of television and radio stations that a company can own in a market. The rules prohibit any company from owning television stations that reach more than 35 percent of U.S. households, or owning a newspaper and a radio or television station in the same city.
Q: Why might the rules be changed?
A: The FCC is examining whether they still reflect a media landscape changed by cable television, satellite broadcasts and the Internet. A 1996 law required the FCC to study ownership rules every two years and repeal or modify any regulation determined to be no longer in the public interest. Many changes proposed since then have remained unfinished or were sent back to the FCC after court challenges brought by media companies.
Q: Who wants the rules changed?
A: FCC Chairman Michael Powell and the two other Republicans on the five-member commission favor easing ownership regulations. Big media companies including the major television networks and newspaper owners such as Tribune Co. and Gannett Inc. want restrictions on their businesses eliminated. Many lawmakers, mainly Republicans, also support easing the rules, believing they are outdated and limit the ability of companies to grow and stay competitive.
Q: Who wants to keep the rules as they are?
A: The two Democrats on the commission, consumer advocates, small broadcasters, writers, musicians, academics and the National Rifle Association, among others. They worry relaxed rules will lead to a merger frenzy, giving a handful of corporations control of news and entertainment. Supporters of the rules say most people still get their news primarily from television and newspapers, and while there are hundreds of cable channels and sources of Internet news, most of those outlets are controlled by a few big companies.
Q: What are the changes the FCC is considering?
A: Raising the national television ownership cap to 45 percent and allowing one company to own two television stations in markets with at least six competitors and three stations in the largest cities such as New York and Los Angeles. Combining two existing "cross-ownership" rules -- one that prevents a company from owning a newspaper and a broadcast station in the same city, the second that involves joint radio and television station ownership in the same market. The proposal would allow cross-ownership in large and medium markets and impose restrictions or prohibitions in small markets.
Q: How will this affect what I watch, hear and read?
A: Media companies seeking eased restrictions say new mergers and combinations will let them produce more quality entertainment and local news. The television networks say that without eased rules, the best programming will migrate to pay-television services. Opponents of relaxed rules say combining television stations and newspapers is dangerous because those entities will not monitor each other and provide different opinions. Critics also say television could become like radio: deregulation in 1996 allowed companies to amass hundreds of stations and cut costs by replacing local shows with national programming.
The F.C.C. proposal remains officially secret to avoid public comment but was forced into the open by the two commission Democrats. It would end the ban in most cities of cross-ownership of television stations and newspapers, allowing such companies as The New York Times, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune to gobble up ever more electronic outlets. It would permit Viacom, Disney and AOL Time Warner to control TV stations with nearly half the national audience. In the largest cities, it would allow owners of "only" two TV stations to buy a third.
We've already seen what happened when the F.C.C. allowed the monopolization of local radio: today three companies own half the stations in America, delivering a homogenized product that neglects local news coverage and dictates music sales.
And the F.C.C. has abdicated enforcement of the "public interest" requirement in issuing licenses. Time was, broadcasters had to regularly reapply and show public-interest programming to earn continuance; now they mail the F.C.C. a postcard every eight years that nobody reads.
Ah, but aren't viewers and readers now blessed with a whole new world of hot competition through cable and the Internet? That's the shucks-we're-no-monopolists line that Rupert Murdoch will take today in testimony before the pussycats of John McCain's Senate Commerce Committee.
The answer is no. Many artists, consumers, musicians and journalists know that such protestations of cable and Internet competition by the huge dominators of content and communication are malarkey. The overwhelming amount of news and entertainment comes via broadcast and print. Putting those outlets in fewer and bigger hands profits the few at the cost of the many.
Does that sound un-conservative? Not to me. The concentration of power — political, corporate, media, cultural — should be anathema to conservatives. The diffusion of power through local control, thereby encouraging individual participation, is the essence of federalism and the greatest expression of democracy.
Why do we have more channels but fewer real choices today? Because the ownership of our means of communication is shrinking. Moguls glory in amalgamation, but more individuals than they realize resent the loss of local control and community identity.
We opponents of megamergers and cross-ownership are afflicted with what sociologists call "pluralistic ignorance." Libertarians pop off from what we assume to be the fringes of the left and right wings, but do not yet realize that we outnumber the exponents of the new collectivist efficiency.
That's why I march uncomfortably alongside CodePink Women for Peace and the National Rifle Association, between liberal Olympia Snowe and conservative Ted Stevens under the banner of "localism, competition and diversity of views." That's why, too, we resent the conflicted refusal of most networks, stations and their putative purchasers to report fully and in prime time on their owners' power grab scheduled for June 2.
A funny thing happened during the Iraq war: many Americans turned to the BBC for their TV news. They were looking for an alternative point of view — something they couldn't find on domestic networks, which, in the words of the BBC's director general, "wrapped themselves in the American flag and substituted patriotism for impartiality."
Leave aside the rights and wrongs of the war itself, and consider the paradox. The BBC is owned by the British government, and one might have expected it to support that government's policies. In fact, however, it tried hard — too hard, its critics say — to stay impartial. America's TV networks are privately owned, yet they behaved like state-run media.
What explains this paradox? It may have something to do with the China syndrome. No, not the one involving nuclear reactors — the one exhibited by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation when dealing with the government of the People's Republic.
Reporting for the Los Angeles Times, Edmund Sanders tells us that pressure is building on FCC Chairman Michael Powell's drive to deregulate and consolidate the American media. Now, some legislators are wondering about Powell and a suspected quid pro quo with a Texas media corporation..
WASHINGTON — In a sign of building political heat in the media ownership debate, two Democratic congressmen are questioning whether the Republican chairman of the Federal Communications Commission cut a "backroom deal" with Dallas-based Belo Corp. to win the broadcaster's support for his proposed rule changes.
In a letter sent Thursday, Reps. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) asked FCC Chairman Michael Powell whether he or his staff offered to assist Belo on unrelated matters if the company reversed its stance and offered support for an FCC proposal to raise the national television ownership cap to 45% from 35%.
Chicago Passes Resolution Opposing FCC Consolidation Efforts
Free Media brings us some very good news from Chicago, where every last member of the City Council voted to pass a resolution (50-0) that calls for an end to continued media deregulation and a refocus on media diversity and democracy. This is a major event and one that by all rights, should be replicated at council meetings throughout the country.
At the Wednesday, May 7, 2003 City Council meeting, the Chicago City Council passed a resolution 50-0 calling on the Federal Communications Commission (?FCC?) to "protect the public's right to diversity in media content, ownership and employment" by prohibiting further media consolidation. The resolution cautions that media consolidation results in lost jobs, reduced diversity in programming and ownership, and less commitment to the local community.
The FCC is currently reviewing six of its remaining controls regulating the radio, television and print media industries with an eye toward eliminating them. A decision is expected in June of 2003.
Resolution sponsor, 50th Ward Alderman Bernard Stone said ?We want people involved in ownership who have our interests at heart.? The resolution pointed out that ?unchecked media consolidation benefits a small number of corporate interests at the expense of the public interest.? 16 Chicago Aldermen joined Alderman Stone as signers of the resolution.
Chicago Access Network Television (CAN TV) gives every Chicagoan a voice on cable television by providing live call-in programs, video training, facilities, equipment, and channel time for Chicago residents and nonprofit groups. Cable channels CAN TV19, 21, 27, 36 and 42 reach more than a million viewers in the city of Chicago. For more information call (312) 738-1400 or log on to www.cantv.org.
The full text of the resolution is below:
A RESOLUTION IN SUPPORT OF DIVERSITY IN MEDIA
WHEREAS, freedom of the press and public access to diverse media are prerequisites for a functioning democracy; and
WHEREAS, the broadcast airwaves are owned commonly by the public, and should be managed to serve the public interest; and
WHEREAS, the public interest is best served by the availability of a broadly diverse range of viewpoints; and
WHEREAS, media diversity is seriously threatened by further consolidation of media ownership in an already highly concentrated market; and
WHEREAS, deregulation of radio ownership rules under the 1996 Telecommunications Act caused unprecedented consolidation, dramatically decreasing competition; and
WHEREAS, radio industry consolidation has also damaged local commitment and content diversity, in part by shifting control and resources away from local programmers and towards central managers, which had led to reductions in local news and public affairs programming, thousands of lost jobs, and reduced access to the airwaves for local musicians, community groups and public officials; and
WHEREAS, a 1998 Benton Foundation study sent a warning signal with its finding that in Chicago, 12 commercial television stations devoted no more than 1% of their total programming to local public affairs; and
WHEREAS, the Chicago City Council supports competition, local commitment and a broad diversity of voices and do not support media consolidation that would harm the public interest and decrease the commitment of media owners to the local community; and
WHEREAS, the Federal Communications Commission is currently considering an unprecedented rollback of media ownership regulations; and
WHEREAS, the elimination or weakening of these regulations would further reduce competition, local accountability, diversity of content and voices, and the amount and quality of news coverage in broadcast and print media across the country while providing windfall profits for a small handful of corporate media owners;
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, THAT WE, THE MAYOR AND MEMBERS OF THE CITY COUNCIL of the City of Chicago recognize that as citizens in a democracy, we require public access to a diverse range of media voices and messages in order to participate fully in our community's shared social, cultural and political life. We stand for regulations that serve the public interest. Unchecked media consolidation benefits a small number of corporate interests at the expense of the public interest; and
We urge the Federal Communications Commission to protect and preserve its ban on cross-ownership of print and electronic media and to strengthen existing media ownership regulations, including regulations that limit the number of stations one owner may hold. By so doing, the FCC will protect the public's right to diversity in media content, ownership and employment; and
We further call upon the Congress to exercise its oversight in the area of federal communications policy through public hearings on media ownership issues; and to pursue legislation aimed at protecting our democratic media by prohibiting further media consolidation.
Reporting for Multichannel News, Ted Hearn tells us about FCC Commissioner Michael Copps' latest charge that the American corporate media is dodging a very important news story: itself. Copps goes out of his way to say he's not alleging any conspiracy.
Michael Copps is a nice man. On this issue, perhaps too nice. Let's call a spade a spade...
The major media outlets have initiated what appears to a blackout on reporting about their efforts to consolidate US print, broadcast, radio and cable into the hands of a very few and powerful companies. They don't want to spread the news that this move will make the filthy rich obscenely rich. They're not keen on the public knowing that diversity of viewpoint will be yesterday's news once the Federal Communications on June 2 votes to do their bidding. One would have to be simple-minded or wildly disingenuous to suggest this is anything but a calculated move on the part of the media to avoid disclosure. Hearns has put together one of the very best articles on the looming problem of media consolidation. This piece is required reading. Here's a bit from Commish: Media Copping Out on Coverage...
Washington— Federal Communications Commission member Michael Copps last week said he's miffed that big media outlets are ignoring the FCC debate over media-ownership policies.
"I have yet to see network-news coverage, a network-news item on the evening news or a newsmagazine. Yet it's something that goes to the very fundamentals of our ability to be good citizens, and it goes to the fundamentals of the kind of entertainment we are going to have," Copps said on Washington, D.C., radio station WAMU's The Kojo Nnamdi Show April 22.
Despite his own efforts to attract attention, Copps said he's seen little interest from journalists in his public forums or the broader media-ownership policies before the agency.
"I am not alleging that there is a conspiracy of silence with regard to what I have been doing around the country, but I must say the major networks and some of the major chain papers have not done a very good job of covering it," he added.
Calls to several media outlets — including CBS, NBC and Fox — were unavailing. A CBS spokesman refused comment; NBC and Fox ignored requests for comment.
They won't talk about this issue? Some might say that the big names in American media - the ones who are fighting to dismantle the Federal Communications Commission and the rules that govern them, are beginning to look as unsavory a bunch of characters as some in organized crime.
Make the media talk. Contact your legislators by dialing up the Congressional toll-free number at 1-800-839-5276. Tell them you are opposed to the monopolization of our radio, print, broadcast and cable, by a handful of conglomerates.
Demand that your legislators begin acting in the public interest, as opposed to the interest of the affluent and powerful.
In June, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to usher in sweeping changes to the information landscape by weakening and perhaps discarding several crucial rules limiting media ownership. In an era of corporate giants such as AOL Time Warner, fighting the media consolidation tidal wave might seem like arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
Still, a group of activists -- operating with relatively small budgets, very loud voices, and an inexhaustible supply of energy -- wage a lonely battle against consolidation in the name of what they say is diversity, fairness, and public interest. Meet four committed Washington outsiders playing an insider's game against long odds.
Jenny Toomey, rock 'n' roll activist: It's not every day that someone testifying before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation introduces herself as ''a rocker, businesswoman, and an activist.'' Toomey, 35, has run an independent record label and has played solo and with the band Tsunami. Now she focuses much of her energy on the job of executive director of the nonprofit Future of Music Coalition. In November 2002, the FMC waded deeply into the consolidation issue with a major report called ''Radio Deregulation: Has It Served Citizens and Musicians?'' Concluding that corporate giants such as Viacom and Clear Channel dominate the field, Toomey found ''that the radical deregulation of the radio industry . . . has led to less competition, fewer viewpoints, and less diversity in programming. ''The thing that upsets us . . . particularly with radio,'' she adds, ''is it's the only local medium left.''
As this Jurkowitz media column attests, one needn't be a high powered lobbyist to rattle the cages of institutionalized Capitol Hill politics. Learn more about Jenny Toomey and the three other media movers and shakers he profiles in this must-read piece.