The Impending Consolidation Story Up To Now — No More Begging

On today’s mediageek radio show I decided to give an update to all the various non-happenings and news regarding the impending FCC review of media ownership rules. It’s sort of a continuation and elaboration of Wednesday’s blog entry, Growing Awareness of the Media Monopoly Threat, But Will It Do Any Good? Click for more below.

And, yes, this is a bit of a stall tactic as I formulate my radical media call for arms.

The FCC will be voting on revisions to current media ownership rules on June 2, and so the topic of media ownership and consolidation is dominating media news right now. Although the FCCÂ’s public comment period has long past and the Commission completed its one and only official public hearing on the issue, public interest groups, citizen groups, academics and legislators are all putting increased pressure on the FCC to tread lightly on the nationÂ’s media ownership regulations, or to even delay the looming vote deadline.

Among the rules at issue are those that limit the number of TV stations a single company may own nationwide, the number of radio stations a company can own in a single market, and the so-called cross-ownership and duopoly rules, which restict the ownership of a television station and another major media outlet in the same market, such as another TV station or a daily newspaper.

FCC Chairman Powell has been making the press rounds in the last couple of weeks to press his agenda for minimizing or eliminating these rules. On Monday, April 28, Powell told the Newspaper Association of America convention in Seattle that he believes the FCC will vote to eliminate the cross-ownership rule.

At a press conference on May 1, Powell elaborated on his cross-ownership position, telling reporters that he expects the agency to adopt a rule that will count the number of television stations in a market before allowing a company to buy additional media outlets there. Powell explained, “There’s going to be a rule that looks like something like this: if there are X TVs in a market, you can own Y,’ that’s what the rule is going to be.”

According to the Consumer Federation of American, ownership of newspapers and TV stations already has fallen from about 1,500 to 600 entities since the 1970s. It could fall to as low as 300 owners if Powell’s rule change takes effect, according to a December report by the federation.

In an interview with the Financial Times published on April 30, Powell expressed the opinion that free over-the-air television may go away if the FCC doesn’t intervene with deregulation. He told the FT, “I think there is a real worry about the long-term survivability of the free over the air medium . . . There is a very easy way for it to collapse, given that 86 per cent of the people are receiving their TV through paid cable or [satellite].” In order to remedy this Powell advocates easing restrictions that prevent broadcasters reaching more than 35 per cent of the national audience. Such a move is supported by the major network broadcasters who have always had a significant interest in owning many more stations than they currently are allowed to. Current limits mean that most network affiliated stations are owned independently of the networks, giving affiliates more collective power to negotiate with the networks – a power balance that the likes of NBC, Viacom and FOX would like to see changed.

However, at the moment, in all these interviews and appearances Powell is speaking only for himself. Both the FCCÂ’s Democrats, Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, have been busy attending public hearings on media ownership around the nation and have been outspoken in their opposition to most of PowellÂ’s agenda.

Much less is known about the opinion of the FCCÂ’s two other Repulicans, who have been shy about making public comments on the issue of media ownership. ItÂ’s widely believed that Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy is PowellÂ’s most reliable ally, having typically voted with the Chair. Commissioner Kevin Martin is much more of a wild card, having sided with commission Democrats against Powell and Abernathy on a critical telecommunications vote earlier in the year.

According to FCC insiders, Martin is likely to support modification or elimination of the cross-ownership rule, but is much less likely to support a change in TV and radio ownership caps.

Yet, despite Chairman PowellÂ’s recent public appearances, still little is known about the propsed rule changes that the FCC will vote on June 2 – even the other FCC commissioners donÂ’t know the specifics. FCC Democratic Commissioners Copps and Adelstein have both called on Powell to publicly release the proposed rule changes and allow for a public comment period prior to the FCC voting on them. Powell has steadfastly refused to do this, telling reporters that “I’m reluctant to come to the conclusion that it is valuable. I’m not entirely sure it would advance the decision-making process.”

Responding to PowellÂ’s refusal to make the FCCÂ’s media ownership rules review process more open and transparent, 285 academics released a letter asking the FCC to disclose its plans for a rulemaking “index” and other quantitative measures that it intends to propose for measuring media ownership concentration.

The letter states: “We have grave doubts that any single measure can effectively analyze the complexities of the media marketplace in terms of its impact on journalism, citizen access to information, and competition.” It stresses that any ‘universalÂ’ quantitative approach to determining media policy is bound to be imprecise, and emphasizes the need to release any proposed quantitative and qualitative measures so that they can be fairly evaluated by experts in communications, economics and social science.

Professor Robert McChesney of the University of Illinois commented,

“The existing media rules were created to guarantee the citizens their basic rights to a diverse and independent media. Chairman Powell seems focused solely on the impact of media rules on the advertising marketplace, not the marketplace of ideas. Regardless of the index or rule Mr. Powell chooses, hundreds of leading scholars justifiably believe that any proposal should be first released for scholarly review and comment.”

The letter follows a letter to FCC Chairman Powell from a majority of the Senate Commerce Committee members expressing disappointment that such changes would occur “without any opportunity for the Congress or the public to review them beforehand.”

Last weekend the FCCÂ’s Democratic Commissioners, local legislators, media scholars, industry representatives and hundreds of ordinary citizens attended two public forums on the media ownership issue in California. On Saturday April 26, more than 400 people attended the public forum held in San Francisco City Hall, one of the few such forums not held in a University setting. Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein was in attendance and weÂ’ll hear his comments to the crowd later on in the program.

On Monday, the 28th, Adelstein was joined by Michael Copps, the FCC’s other Democratic commissioner, at a public hearing in Los Angeles. The audience for the LA hearing was filled with independent entertainment industry producers who fear the increased power of television networks that is likely to result from loosening ownership restrictions.

Speaking personally, I have to say that the most positive outcome of these public hearings has been that they have pushed the issue of media ownership rules and consolidation onto the front pages of the newspapers and onto the TV news in the cities where these forums have been held. Time and again, public participants in these hearings have complained that they have heard virtually nothing from the local or national media about this issue and instead were notified though all sorts of alternative channels. But because having FCC Commissioners visit anywhere outside Washington DC is a big deal, the specialness of these events pushes the story into the spotlight.

Of special importance is that having these forums gets the issue of media ownership onto television, where, aside from PBS and CPAN, there has been virtual blackout on the issue of media consolidation. And even most of the newspaper coverage has been on the business pages, covered as a story for managers and investors, not one of significance to democracy and culture.

Although the time has long passed when the FCC was officially accpeting comments from the general public on the issue, it is still likely that growing public awareness and pressure on the FCC and on Congress will have some effect. It may serve to temper some of Chairman PowellÂ’s more extreme deregulatory urges, and moreover public pressure probably serves to bolster the resolve of the FCCÂ’s Democrats to hold their line against Powell and the other two FCC Republicans. The threat of Congressional oversight can also put some fear into Powell, since it is Congress that controls the FCCÂ’s pursestrings.

However, we also have to remember that it is Congress that put us in this mess in the first place, not just the FCC. Even though it is the FCC that is charged with making, reviewing and revising media ownership regulation, it is Congress that wrote and passed the laws that define the context and the limits of these regulations.

Most significantly, it is the Telecommunications Act of 1996, passed under the Democratic Clinton Administration, that greatly relaxed radio ownership rules, allowing for the likes of Clear Channel to become a 1200 station behemoth. It is also the Telecomm Act that requires the FCC to engage in these biannual ownership rules in the first place. Thus, the FCC is responding to Congressional mandate by reviewing ownership rules this Spring, not simply acting on Chairman PowellÂ’s impulse.

Arguably, more attention is now being paid to the issue of media ownership and consolidation with this rules review than was paid to the issue when the 1996 Telecomm Act was debated and passed. Yet, had the Telecomm Act been written differently, or not passed at all, we would not be in this same consolidation mess now.

In some ways I fear that the attention and outrage being expressed about the FCC’s ownership rules review now is a little too late – almost seven years too late, in fact. While I do not trust the agenda of FCC Chairman Powell, it is true that he and the rest of the FCC are acting under the pressure of both Congress and the Federal Courts, which have been ruling against the FCC’s media ownership regulations. These strictures were put in place through legislation and the appointment of Federal Judges.

At root, media consolidation is the result of action by Congress and the President. While the FCC may be able to put some band-aids on the bleeding, real change and real repair to our media can only come from Congress and the President, if at all. If the Senate Commerce Committee membership is truly serious about combatting the effects of industry consolidation, then those Senators have the power and the duty to introduce legislation to turn it back. Writing letters to the FCC Chair is fine, but actions will speak more loudly than words.

But to truly work and to truly happen, media democracy cannot just be mandated from above. Media democracy starts at the grassroots, with community radio, Independent Media Centers, alternative papers, indie music and so on. If we want to take back our media, we have to be realy to take it back, regardless of whether our government is prepared to give us its permission and blessing. At some point lobbying is just a professionalized form of begging. Petitioning our legislators and representatives may be necessary, but it is not sufficient. This radio program is one way that I try to work for media democracy, and I urgently encourage you to find your way.




2 responses to “The Impending Consolidation Story Up To Now — No More Begging”

  1. Emily Avatar

    I was wondering if anyone has some information on setting up an independent media station and or on running it. Feel free to email me with suggestions. If it makes a difference I am going to be located in Albany New York.

  2. Emily Avatar

    Never having posted here I did not know that my email adress did not just show up. So here is is,
    Thanks again (and feeling dumb)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *