The FCC also announced that Chairman Powell has created a Media Ownership Working Group. About the Group, Powell said, “Rebuilding the factual foundation of the Commission’s media ownership regulations is one of my top priorities. For too long, the Commission has made sweeping media policy decisions without a contemporaneous picture of the media market. We need to rigorously examine whether current forms of media regulation are achieving the Commission’s policy objectives, and how changes in regulations would affect the policy goals of competition, diversity, and localism. I am creating the Media Ownership Working Group to bring a sharp focus to these tasks.”
While it would appear a generally positive thing that the FCC is formally researching media ownership, I am suspicious of Powell’s objectives. In this statement he also says that a goal is to conduct an “empirical examination” of media ownership, with the implication that the FCC has not before made such a thorough investigation. It is unclear what an “empirical examination” might be. At least to me, on its face an “empirical examination” is simple and clear: very few media companies own virtually all the broadcast media production and distribution outlets in the US. What else is he looking for? I think maybe he’s looking to show that it’s OK to have so few owners because otherwise everything else is just dandy.
Powell says some of the key questions the Group is to answer revolve around issues of “consumer choice” and how “innovation in media technology affected by FCC regulation.” The framing of media ownership issues in this way already indicates the bent of this Group is not to critically examine the media ownership situation in the US.
For example, focusing on “consumer choice” is different than focusing on “diversity of choices”– in the former the fact that digitial cable subscribers can have 100+ TV channels can be construed as a wide range of choices, but be ignorant of the fact that much of the programming is repeated on multiple channels and that nearly all of it is produced by the same three companies and is overwhelmingly commercial in nature, which is something an analysis of diversity would flesh out. In looking at the issue of “innovation” I also wonder if Powell isn’t looking to pin the failure of HDTV to roll out on regulation rather than broadcasters’ foot-dragging and reticence to give up their analog spectrum space. Looking for “empirical evidence” is really just a smoke screen for taking focus away from the qualitative issues like diversity in programming and reporting while giving the appearance of being scientific in approach. What is the Group going to count? How many TV stations have yet to go digital? How many network TV shows still don’t use digital TV technology? The numbers don’t mean much without critical analysis.
In short, I suspect that the agenda of the FCC’s new Working Group on Media Ownership is to affirm the status quo and provide supposed evidence for further deregulation rather than to provide actual critical analysis.