A Few Surprises in the FCC Appearance at the Senate Commerce Committee

I just finished scanning through the C-SPAN archive of the meeting and found about a half-hour where the commissioners tackle the media concentration issue at the prompting of Sen. Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Dorgan (D-ND). Chairman Powell’s response was quite interesting, in fact, contending that he is concerned about concentration, especially in radio, and that, contrary to media depictions, there is no plan to radically deregulate.

Reuters reports on Powell’s comments:

” ‘I am skeptical that some of the more melodramatic versions of what’s likely to come out of the commission are actually an accurate reflection of what the majority of the commission thinks,’ Powell told the Senate Commerce Committee. …

“Powell and at least two other commissioners said they hoped to avoid the example of the radio business, which is now dominated by a few large companies, notably Clear Channel Communications Inc., after Congress lifted ownership limits in 1996.”

The AP also reports on the meeting, but focuses its lead on the telecomm issue of local bells opening their networks.

Later in response to questions from Sen. Snowe (R-ME) on the importance of public input, Powell assured the committe that he valued public input, noting that the commission had received 2000 comments on the media ownership rules proceeding, most of which came from individuals. Sen. Snowe also encouraged the commission to hold more public hearing and forums in a variety of locations, but Powell did not directly respond to this.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of Powell’s and the other commissioners’ comments. Sen. Wyden seemed particularly suprised by Powell’s assurances that he shared concerns over concentration. I’m surprised, too, to hear Powell speak so relatively frankly on the issue and not hide too much behind vague invocations of “diversity, localism and competition.”

Further, Powell strongly delcared that under his chairship the FCC has blocked some radio mergers, and that the radio consolidation we’re currently suffering under happened on the watch of the previous chairs. On the issue of localism and TV, he pointed out that a national ownership cap doesn’t quite get at this concern, and that the rule might better be set in terms of local markets.

But, lest we think we have a new public-interest-friendly Michael Powell on our hands, he then claimed that local “combinations” (multiple station ownership) can be good for TV journalism, since it’s expensive to do and may require pooled resources. My retort is that this is only true when absolute profit maximization takes tremendous priority over any semblence of public service and accountability.

There are, then, some mixed messages from our fair FCC chair — Democratic Commissioners Adelstein and Copps were much more clearly critical of concentration, Republican Commissioner Martin sounded like a policy wonk and Commissioner Abernathy just seemed confused.

However I do think it’s clear that the FCC has become quite aware of the public’s concern over media concentration, that is also reflected in the bipartisan concerns expressed by members of the Commerce Committee. This might be serving as a caution against the FCC pushing the deregulation as far as Powell might have thought he could just six months ago. Indeed, he didn’t want much public publicity or input, pushing for shorter comment deadlines and no public forums. But now the cat is out of the bag and yowling like crazy. But that doesn’t mean the public and democratic communications still won’t get screwed.

I recorded the 23 minute portion of the meeting where they directly tackle media concentration and compressed it into a low bitrate mp3 (604kb). Click here to download and give it a listen. (a note on the quality — there’s some distortion here and there. I’ll put a better quality one up soon, but this one is still understandable.)






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