May 20 2003

Will the FCC Help Big Media Get Even Bigger?

A majority of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) intends to ratify a sweeping plan to weaken or eliminate rules that limit the size and power of media companies. Among other things, the FCC’s three Republican commissioners hope to revoke the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rule, which prevents a company from owning a newspaper and a TV station in the same market, and to significantly increase the number of TV stations one company can own.

While FCC chair Michael Powell has the votes to pass the plan, the decision to vote on the matter by June 2 could still be challenged to allow for more public education and debate. Several senators have asked for a delay in the process, and a measure to that end was introduced on May 9 in the House of Representatives (Reuters, 5/13/03). The two Democratic FCC commissioners, Michael Copps and Kenneth Adelstein, also oppose the deregulation, and requested on May 13 that the Commission postpone its planned vote. Powell rejected their request.

The FCC’s rulemaking process is, by design, difficult to follow, but the potential impact of what the New York Times called (3/14/03) “the most important set of rules changes in decades” is alarmingly clear. Broadcasting & Cable reported (5/15/03) that the FCC’s current proposals would allow a single company to own as many as three TV stations in any of the five biggest markets (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia), and permit ownership of two TV stations– as well as a major newspaper– “in nearly all of the largest 100 markets.” In large radio markets, according to B&C, the changes would allow a company to own eight radio and two TV stations.

Imagine living in a community where one large, multinational conglomerate controlled eight radio stations, two major TV stations and the leading daily newspaper. Given the damage that media consolidation has already done to the quality and diversity of media offerings, such a scenario– repeated in communities across the country– has worrying implications.

For people relying on network television for news, however, it would be tough to know much about the changes in the works. ABC World News Tonight aired a May 15 report on FCC deregulation– divided into “pro” and “con” segments– and a May 18 report on radio deregulation. At CBS and NBC, there have been no mentions of the sweeping proposals on any of the nightly newscasts, and only three brief early-morning reports elsewhere on the network schedule (ABC World News This Morning, 9/9/02, 2/27/03; class=”media_outlet”>CBS Morning News, 5/13/03).

These networks are all owned by companies that stand to profit from the FCC’s plan to re-shape the media landscape. Their scant coverage of these issues– ranging from very little at ABC to none at all at NBC— reflects a glaring conflict of interest.

Despite the near-blackout on broadcast media, the FCC has received an enormous, perhaps unprecedented amount of public feedback on the ownership rules. According to Editor & Publisher magazine (5/5/03), commissioner Michael Copps says that the FCC has received over 18,000 comments from individuals, which overwhelmingly opposed relaxation of ownership restrictions. According to the group Free Press, comments from the public are running at least 10 to 1 against the FCC’s plan to allow large media companies to get even bigger. If media corporations and the FCC’s Republican commissioners get their way, the FCC’s vote will disregard this overwhelming public opposition.

ACTION: Encourage the nightly newscasts to do substantive reporting on the FCC deregulation controversy, including the congressional attempts to postpone the vote. Remind them of their ethical duty to disclose the interests of their parent companies.

You also might want to commend ABC for reporting on the issue.

CBS Evening News

Phone: 212-975-3691

NBC Nightly News

Phone: 212-664-4971

ABC World News Tonight

Phone: 212-456-4040

CAPITOL HILL & THE FCC: It’s also important for citizens to speak out for diverse, democratic media by contacting the FCC and elected officials. There are a number of websites designed to make this easier. See: