FCC Releases Loaded Reports on Media Ownership

Last week the FCC released a series of research reports it commissioned on the topic of media ownership and regulation. For the most part, these reports are heavily econometric, relying on supposed “hard data” that mostly amounts to things they can count without too much effort. No surprise, then, that the bulk of these studies conclude that there is more media choice and overall more diversity… since 1960, that is.

When these studies do dive into more qualitative inquiries, they’re standards for judging ‘quality’ are thin and ever so unchallenging. In “The Measurement of Local Television News and Public Affairs Programs” the authors are attempting to see what effect the ownership of local network TV stations–whether they’re owned and operated by the network (O&O) or independently owned affiliates–has on the quality stations’ local news and public affairs programming. They measure this by looking at the awards stations win, the stations’ ratings, and the total hours of this programming.

Although the total amount of hours of news and public affairs does give some indication of a station’s commitment to public service, it’s utterly laughable to assert that a station’s ratings are any indicator of quality. Does anyone remember when the freakin’ Dukes of Hazzard was the #1 show in the US? Nevermind that Survivor was the #8 show just last week (Friends was #1). Can anyone argue with a straight face that Survivor was better than the 30 or so shows below it, like 60 Minutes or even the Sopranos?

Judging the quality of a station’s news programming by the awards it wins is not a bad measure, but is completely dependent upon the nature of the awards. The most problematic aspect of awards is that they’re given only relative to other news programs. This means that a station that wins is only better than other stations in its league — so if they all suck, the winner just sucks the least.

Utterly missing from this sort of analysis is a deeper investigation of what actually gets covered in local news and public affairs programming. How many murders and car chases? How many corporate press releases turned into stories (“coming up, a new product announced promises to leave your ass sparkly and minty fresh”)? How many candidates for local offices were grilled on-air for more than a 10 second sound bite?

Essentially, these reports set no standards, and simply try to quantify if there’s more or less of whatever. They utterly fail to address questions of better or worse, or even conjecture how to measure better or worse.Sure, maybe there are just as many radio formats on the air now as there were in 1996, before the Telecomm Act ushered in massive consolidation. But what are those formats? And what about the changes to a local rock station when Clear Channel buys it, fires the DJs, turns on automation and has all its programming decisions made hundreds of miles away? Yeah, we have lots of flavors of ice cream, as long as you like vanilla.

So, what the FCC’s handed us is a facade of hard data that favors whatever conclusion the FCC wants to lean toward. Look behind the facade and you’ll see Chairman Powell holding it up.

And at least some media critics are calling them on it:

“‘These studies should not be a basis for abandoning broadcast-ownership limits,’ said Mark Cooper, research director for the Consumer Federation of America. Any FCC attorney relying on last week’s research to defend new deregulation against court challenges would ‘get his brain handed to him,’ he said, suggesting that the FCC coordinated the conclusions to favor deregulation.”

All of these reports are available on-line, and the FCC is accepting comments from the public, which also may be submitted on-line. You can damn sure bet the media conglomerates will be taking up the offer, stroking the FCC for what a good job it’s done in getting good hard data for them to screw the public with. And though it may seem a losing battle, public comments do make a difference.

Of course, most of the public is unaware that they have any say in the future of media ownership and regulation. Neither CNN, FOX nor the NY Times is eager to bring it to their attention, either. “Not interesting,” is what their editors would argue. Or they’d say, “that’s business news.” Only if democracy is solely within the domain of business (and, yeah, unfortunately there’s too many plutocrats who truly believe just that). But, really, it’s not in the best interest of a media conglomerate to alert you as to how they’re engineering even bigger take-overs of your media environment.

That’s why I bring it to this blog, and my radio show. I hope you’ll spread the word, too. Even small gains are worth the time is takes to scrawl a few comments. And it doesn’t mean that we can’t still work to screw ’em harder elsewhere and Reclaim our Media.






2 responses to “FCC Releases Loaded Reports on Media Ownership”

  1. […] Martin also promises $200,000 for studies on issues like, “competition within types of media and across media platforms,” and, “independent and diverse programming in today’s media environment.” But if they’re anything like the studies done for the 2002 ownership proceeding, they’ll be slanted almost to the point of being comical. […]

  2. […] a while. I guess I’m not alone, and now I’ve got an extension to get my butt in gear. I did read the 2002 reports, and they provided a strong clue that the game was rigged from the start. […]

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