Mediageek News Headlines from the Dec. 13 Radio Show

These are the news headlines as read on the mediageek radio show on Friday, Dec. 13, 2002.

Stories include: Media Ownership Review News; FCC To Open More Wireless Spectrum?; Int’l Journalists Sound Warning for Italian News Media; Canadian Media Mogul Says Keep Media Canadian

You can listen to the entire show on-line on the radio show page. The Dec. 13 show also features an interview with a Berkeley Liberation Radio volunteer who tells about the Dec. 11 FCC raid on that unlicensed free radio station.

Mediageek headline news features stories about our communications environment that typically get relegated to the business pages of our newspapers and often don’t get reported at all in the electronic media. News on media law, regulation and industry is not just of interest to investors and stockholders – it’s important to all of us, especially if we want to have a role in changing our media environment to meet the needs of a truly democratic society.

Media Ownership Review News
The issue of media ownership tops the news this week. This week the Federal Communications Commission staff released a draft recommendation for new rules on the ownership in the cable TV industry. Under current rules a single company may own local systems that reach a maximum of 30% of the national cable TV households. This rule means that there must be at least three different national cable TV system operators at any given time in the US.

The Commission’s new recommendation advocates raising the cap to 45% of national cable TV households. But rather than set a rigid 45% cap, the FCC staff is tentatively proposing a flexible limit of 30% to 45%, which the commissioners could alter based on the competitive concerns a given merger might raise.
At the moment the largest cable company in the US is Comcast, which grew to reach 28% of US cable households through a recent merger with AT&T cable. The merged company was required to divest itself of some local cable franchises in order to meet the current 30% cap.

For example, the FCC might impose a lower limit on a proposed merger of companies that also own many cable channels, because such a merged company would have little incentive to carry channels owned by rival companies.
A lower cap also could be set for merged companies that would dominate a multistate region.
It’s believed that this draft recommendation to raise cable ownership limits is based on the desires of Chairman Michael Powell, who has been explicit about his intention to raise or eliminate many media ownership limits. However, it’s also believed that the option for FCC Commissioners to be able to impose lower limits than the maximum was included in order to make the change more palatable to the FCC’s two democratic commissioners.
Since it is only a draft, this proposal may still change markedly as the five FCC commissioners go over it in preparation for the upcoming ownership rules review.
Consumer and communications democracy advocates are concerned about any rise in cable ownership limits. The Consumer’s Union told USA Today that this proposal shows the FCC recognizes the perils of cable consolidation, but it still calls a 45% cap too lenient.
The problem of consolidation in the cable industry stretches beyond just cable TV. Cable companies are increasingly rolling out additional communications services such as broadband Internet and telephone service. This raises the spectre that large cable companies could become de facto local or regional monopolies for a range of communications services. Such consolidated control becomes potentially more problematic given cable companies increasing desire to more strictly control the type of content their customers can view or listen using their service.

Concerns over communications and media industry consolidation are shared by at least on FCC Commissioner. Michael Copps, one of two democrats on the commission, told the Financial Times on Thursday that he is urging the agency to undertake more extensive research into the effect that changes in media ownership rules would have on competition and on consumers.
Last week FCC Chair Michael Powell agreed to hold a public hearing following criticism from Mr Copps that the agency needed to widen the debate on the media ownership rules.

But Mr Copps, who is concerned that deregulation would result in a concentration of media power that would reduce programming diversity, said the FCC needed to ensure that there was a national debate before embarking on irreversible changes.

He expressed concern that corporate interests were monopolising the debate to the detriment of the public, telling the Financial Times that: “The airwaves are public property and spectrum is not like pork bellies to be traded on the Chicago commodities exchange.” The commissioner also called on US media companies to prove their claim that they had a firewall between their news and business arms by giving more media coverage to the debate.

FCC to open more wireless spectrum?
In other FCC news, on Wednesday the commission began the process of finding more broadcast spectrum space to accommodate the explosion of new wireless technologies.

The agency is seeking comment on whether unlicensed devices, like wireless home networks for Internet service, could operate on television broadcast airwaves in areas where they are not being used. At the agency’s monthly open meeting, FCC Chairman Powell said “Our goal in today’s item is to allow for the more efficient and comprehensive use of the spectrum resource while not interfering with existing services.”

Spectrum space is used by every wireless communications device, from radio broadcasts to garage door openers and cellular phones. The allocation of this space is regulated by the FCC, however space allocated for some uses often lies empty or underutilized while new technologies are left unimplemented due to not having been allocated sufficient spectrum space. The allocation of spectrum to various technologies and applications is a complex political process that involves influence, lobbying and capital as much as it involves technical issues.

An FCC task force last month urged the agency to take steps to give users of the nation’s airwaves more flexibility so they can adapt to new technologies and consumer demand. The panel also recommended that license holders of airwaves be able to lease spectrum they are not using.

The agency said that new technological advances have emerged that may make it possible for new unlicensed devices to work without interfering with television signals. A spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters said the industry trade group would study the FCC concept.

The FCC on Wednesday also asked for comments on whether to allow unlicensed devices to be used in other frequencies.

Technologies like wireless Internet are typically implemented in frequencies that don’t require licenses and therefore have seen extensive growth and innovation. Much of this growth has been the result of grassroots efforts that aren’t necessarily profitable to large technology companies. In many communities, including Champaign-Urbana, grassroots projects are in place or underway to use unlicensed spectrum to provide free wireless Internet to neighborhoods or entire cities. The allocation of additional spectrum space for flexible unlicensed use could help expand such communications services.

In Global Media News,

Int’l Journalists Sound Warning for Italian News Media
On Wednesday Dec. 11 the International Federation of Journalists called on political leaders in Italy and the European Union to confront the growing media crisis in Italy following an appeal yesterday by journalists’ leaders at Corriere Della Sera, the country’s biggest-selling daily, for action to protect editorial independence at the paper.

Journalists raised the alarm as proposals for the future of crisis-ridden car company Fiat threatened to undermine the structure that protects independent journalism at the newspaper. Fiat is part of a consortium that owns Corriere Della Sera. Italy’s third biggest daily, La Stampa, is totally owned by Fiat.
The IFJ is particularly concerned that government imposed changes that will take place at Fiat may mean Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his media empire might have influence over the newspaper.

In a press release, Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary said, “Italy’s broadcast media are already compromised by the notorious conflicts of interest of Prime Minister Berlusconi, who has a stranglehold on public and private media. Now there are fears that some of the country’s leading newspapers could come under improper corporate or political influence.”

The IFJ, the world’s largest journalists’ group, is writing to European Commission President Romano Prodi, calling for a public statement on the media situation in Italy, which, it says, “has reached a stage that is intolerable and untenable in a modern democracy.”

For further info:

Canadian Media Mogul Says Keep Media Canadian
And, in Canada, the chairman of one of the country’s largest media conglomerates urged the Canadian government not to tamper with the Canadian ownership rules of the broadcasting industry because it could contribute to a loss of Canadian identity.

Speaking before an annual shareholders meeting, the chairman of Astral Media Inc. said that without government-imposed Canadian control of broadcasting, the Canadian cultural view would become part of a “continental” view, contributing to the loss of Canadian identity.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, which oversees Canadian content regulations in broadcasting, recently began to re-examine the foreign ownership rules in the communications sectors. Legislation could be revised to allow foreign distribution companies, such as cable-TV operators, to also own Canadian content providers.

Canada has long protected its culture industry by requiring broadcasters to make programming from Canadian producers comprise a significant portion of their schedules.






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