Feb 1 2003


Asking the Wrong Questions

FAIR values the opportunity to comment on the rules currently under consideration in the FCC’s 2002 Biennial Review. Unfortunately, the complicated and technical nature of the FCC’s public comment procedure does not encourage–and some would argue actually discourages–significant participation from the public, the citizens whose interests the FCC is supposed to safeguard.

In addition, the specific questions under consideration by the FCC skew the inquiry in favor of deregulation from the start, presupposing that the media business is simply an industry like any other, best governed by a laissez-faire approach that maximizes profit. In a democracy, however, media occupy a unique and vital position, and policy should prioritize democracy, diversity and public engagement, not just financial concerns. There is a serious problem when the agency designated to regulate telecommunications in the public interest considers Americans first as consumers or “customers” rather than as citizens.

The Commission poses a tremendous number of questions for public comment in this rule-making. The rules at stake are of immense importance, both to the public and to media companies: the national television multiple ownership rule, the local television multiple ownership rule, the radio/television cross-ownership rule and the dual network rule. This proceeding also considers reviews that were already underway: the local radio ownership rule and the newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership rule.

The Commission’s Notice of Proposed Rule Making spends considerable time explaining how diversity might be measured, to the Commission and in the courts. Some questions pertain to whether or not cable talkshows like Hardball, or the availability of the Internet, should be factored into discussions of viewpoint diversity.

It is difficult to conduct research that could answer such questions. More importantly, we question the way the process is structured. Andrew Calabrese, in a submission to the FCC this year, made an excellent point about the burden of proof in these deliberations, noting the “dubious view that all policy decisions are or should be based on prior evidence of harm.”

That would be seem to be the essence of the current debate: Should advocates for maintaining and/or strengthening ownership caps be responsible for offering evidence that removing the caps would be detrimental, or should those who seek to expand their control over the public airwaves be forced to make the case that giving them this expanded power will benefit the public?

It seems much more logical and prudent to focus on that latter issue. Have recent decisions relaxing media ownership limits produced tangible benefits for the American public? If not, why would the FCC hand over more control of the public resources to media companies that have not demonstrated a serious commitment to public service?

Deregulation and consolidation

Recent trends in media ownership are unambiguous. The Consumer Federation of America reports that over the past 25 years:

  • The number of TV station owners has declined from 540 to 360.
  • The number of TV newsrooms has been reduced by 15 percent.
  • The number of newspaper owners has dropped from over 860 to fewer than 300.

Radio has been uniquely affected by the move towards greater levels of media concentration. Individual station ownership has dropped 25 percent, and the industry has seen thousands of stations change hands over the last five years. The Future of Music Coalition released an important study in November 2002 that showed the harm to localism and diversity on the radio dial, largely due to the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The study showed that two companies–Clear Channel and Viacom–control 42 percent of radio listeners and 45 percent of revenues. Local markets are generally dominated by a small group of three or four broadcasters that control 70 percent or greater of the local market share.

The Commission should also consider how well existing media outlets serve their communities. A 1998 study by the Benton Foundation and the Media Access Project found that local public affairs shows made up less than one-half of one percent of the fare offered by commercial broadcasters. Thirty-five percent of the stations surveyed had no local news, and 25 percent had no local public affairs programming whatsoever.

If it means to take its mandate to safeguard the public interest seriously, the FCC must make remedying the lack of local and public affairs programming on the public airwaves a central part of its mission. As it is, it seems that our telecommunications policy is being driven by media companies’ desire for ever greater profits (in an industry that is already extremely profitable for media owners and investors). The FCC can either correct this trend by revising its policy priorities to require more public interest programming, or it could continue to allow a diminishing number of companies to give very little back to the public in return for the use of our airwaves.

Excerpted from comments submitted by FAIR in response to the FCC’s proposal to eliminate most limitations on ownership of broadcast licenses.