Nov
01
2001

Even Fewer Voices?

During crisis, FCC moves to accelerate media concentration

Just two days after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the FCC moved to eliminate some of the last remaining restraints on media concentration. With all eyes elsewhere, the FCC voted unanimously to "review" regulations that limit the percentage of the national audience that a single cable company can reach, and that prohibit the same company from owning both a newspaper and a TV station in the same broadcasting market.

FCC chair Michael Powell has made no secret of his desire to abandon any substantive public interest restrictions on the growth and dominance of big media corporations, claiming "the oppressor here is regulation." (See Extra!, 9-10/01.) He even presented this latest move as a patriotic act, declaring, "The flame of the American ideal may flicker, but it will never be extinguished. So we are here today. We will do our small part and press on with our business--solemnly, but resolutely" (Hollywood Reporter, 9/14/01).

The right to monopolize

Earlier this year, the D.C. Court of Appeals struck down the FCC rule that prohibits cable TV companies from controlling more than 30 percent of the U.S. pay-TV market. The FCC declined to appeal, but says it is considering alternate means of regulating cable concentration. The review will also consider how much of a cable company's fare must be reserved for "nonaffiliated" programming--content that it has no financial stake in.

Acquisition-hungry media corporations have argued that limiting the percentage of the market a cable company can reach restricts their "First Amendment rights"--despite the fact that, in practical terms, such a "right" could be exercised by at most two companies. Powell has made similar arguments with regard to broadcast outlets (AP, 4/24/01).

The Center for Digital Democracy (www.democraticmedia.org) points out that the cable ownership cap is about more than the potential for just a few companies to dominate the country's cable TV. As television and the Internet merge technologically, "AOL Time Warner and other cable companies are seeking to dramatically overturn the limits on cable system ownership precisely so they can control the key access point for the Internet marketplace." In the broadband future envisioned by some media moguls, your cable line will provide you not only with TV but with web access, radio, home video, newspapers, magazines and telephone--and, if the FCC eliminates the ownership cap, one or two companies could control it all.

Absorbing the newspaper business

The FCC is also reviewing the rule prohibiting a single company from owning both a newspaper and a TV station in the same city. Pressure to drop this ban comes from companies like Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., whose recent acquisition of station operator Chris-Craft puts it in violation, giving it two TV stations and a newspaper in New York City. (News Corp. already had a waiver to operate one TV station and a newspaper in New York.) Another company in violation of the law is the Tribune Co., whose recent purchase of Times Mirror gave it TV/broadcast combinations in Los Angeles, New York and Orlando. There are more than 40 markets with newspaper-broadcast combinations already, most "grandfathered" in when the law was written in 1975.

Powell has called the cross-ownership ban "extremely prohibitive" (Financial Times, 9/14/01), and said he sees no reason a city's TV station and newspaper shouldn't be controlled by the same company. Indeed, so confident are media corporations in the current anti-regulatory climate that they routinely make deals that violate existing law--"skating where the puck is going to be," is how one industry analyst described it (L.A. Times, 9/14/01).

Besides the wholly foreseeable concentration of political power when a single company can own a town's only newspaper and dominate its broadcast market as well, elimination of this rule will essentially signal the absorption of the newspaper business into the television industry, with a predictably negative impact on the quality of print journalism. Newspaper companies "see savings in news gathering by combining with TV stations as a big plus," an industry analyst told the L.A. Times (9/14/01), giving an indication that the newly merged mega-companies would provide communities with less news, not more.

The "review" process

The FCC says that the rules are under "review," but the process is widely seen as intended to eviscerate the rules, unleashing further concentration in media already overwhelmingly concentrated.

FCC reviews include a mandatory public comment period to give Americans a chance to weigh in on proposed regulations. Comments about the newspaper/broadcast ownership rule must be received by December 3; as Extra! went to press, the window for comments on the cable ownership cap had not been announced, but it too will likely close sometime in December. The FCC will undoubtedly be hearing from media companies and their lobbyists; it's crucial that they hear from the public as well.

At a time of crisis, the dangers of overwhelming concentration in media are more glaring than ever. The changes underway will make media companies less diverse, more commercial and less accountable to the public.