Powell Shaken? Or Is He Spinning?

Today FCC Chair Mikey Powell held a press conference announcing the formation of a task force to study the effect of media consolidation on localism, especially local TV news. He acknowledged the public and Congressional outcry over the recent rules changes and even promised that the task force will hold public hearings.

Finally, Powell promised to accelerate the processing of low-power FM radio license applications, which have been moving at a glacier pace since Powell took over. Of course, there was no word on what the FCC will do about the Mitre report (prepared by Congressional mandate), which says that many more LPFM stations can be safely put on the dial without interference to existing high-power stations.

So, the obvious question is: to what do we owe Powell’s softening on the ownership issue? Or, is this really a softening?

Let’s recall that prior to starting its review of media ownership rules the FCC commissioned a whole series of reports from scholars, communications analysts and FCC staff, examining the effects of consolidation on the broadcast media.

Of course, the results of these studies were mixed and occasionally contradictory, but overall lacking in real depth.

Here’s some of my comments from back in October, 2002, when the reports were released:

“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.

Little suprise, then, that the results of these studies were largely interpreted to support loosening media ownership rules, in that they concluded that ownership had little effect on “quality” by their measure.

I bring up this little bit of history to demonstrate that simply studying the topic of media ownership and diversity doesn’t necessarily mean anything. What really makes the difference is who is on the task force and what methods they use to do their analysis.

Even while announcing this task force and giving the faint impression of mild contrition, Powell stuck to his ideological guns on the effect of ownership:

Powell told reporters the public criticism reflects real problems with dwindling local content. At the same time, he said, “I don’t necessarily think you have to have an owner live down the street to be responsive to localism.”

And so, it’s not out of the question to think that Powell’s just looking for the task force to back up his ideologically cemented position.

Mark Cooper of the Consumer Federation of America has a similar theory, telling Reuters:

“In my view this is pure duplicity. Ownership is the key to what gets on the air.”






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