Tag Archives: FCC

Net Neutrality Debate a Reminder that Content Was Never King

Media consumers are usually too busy paying attention to content to consider the channels through which it arrives. Yet the nature of those channels and the rules governing them have historically had a huge, unacknowledged role in creating and shaping what we read, watch and listen to.

The motion picture business was founded by people who owned tiny movie houses; the future moguls knew nothing about making films, but they owned the exhibition outlets, and needed content to sell tickets for. So they learned, and they shot, and they founded the studios. Channel preceded content, and gave birth to Hollywood.

Channel control has long prefigured media development. In the electronic age, wherever the creative artists went, the engineers had gotten there first.

Broadcasting started out as the late 1920s brainchild of people who made and sold radio sets. They wanted to give customers a reason to buy their receivers, so they then began making programs and transmitting them over the air. First came the distribution channels, content followed.

FM radio languished for 30 years until the 1960s, when regulators told station owners they could no longer fill the high-quality FM band with the same programs they were putting out on scratchy AM. Suddenly huge bandwidth opened up, perfect for audio engineered for clarity — and the revolution in alternative rock was born.

And the feds’ 1962 insistence that all TV sets be equipped to receive signals broadcast in the UHF range – another 60-some channels on top of the four or five that most consumers received — broke the network stranglehold on TV broadcasting and started the industry down the road to the multi-channel cable explosion.

That brief history lesson goes some way toward explaining why today’s controversy over so-called net neutrality matters.

Net neutrality is the policy that has barred the companies that furnish Internet connections from playing favorites. It means Internet

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Return of sex casts a long shadow over the news

March 8, 2004

Suddenly, sex was back. For a few weeks those perplexing matters of war, plague, taxes and even interplanetary travel were shoved off the national stage. Instead we got sex and more sex.

It started with the unscheduled appearance of Janet Jackson’s right breast during the Super Bowl halftime show. That was a big deal. Some people were offended, and those who missed the original offense by blinking got caught up when the scene was rerun hundreds of times, with the breast blurred to avoid giving offense, naturally.

Television learned once again that it could profit both by throwing a punch and by covering the brawl that ensued.

The return of sex continued then through the congressional scolding of TV executives, who shuffled to Capitol Hill to profess dismay and disgust.

Then came the torrid affair that John Kerry didn’t have. Once more, issues such as the deepening federal deficit, President Bush’s military record and the path to abandoning Iraq with honor were swept off the nation’s bedspread so the public could grapple with its old flame, carnal indulgence.

Clear Channel, the world’s biggest radio network, awoke from what apparently was a corporate coma to discover that Howard Stern, the country’s most listened-to radio personality, has a morning talk show dripping with sexual content. Clear Channel dropped him from its stations, its CEO declaring that he was “ashamed to be in any way associated with [Stern’s] words.”

The Federal Communications Commission threatened fines totaling $755,000 for Stern’s obscenities. They purportedly dated back to 2001; evidently the FCC was waiting for the right moment to take action.

Again, network executives appeared before Congress to profess dismay and disgust. They promised to introduce taped delays on live broadcasts, just in case some guest does something lewd. ABC said it would post program ratings after each commercial break, which in the current deregulated environment means more or less constantly.

The spectacle of corporate contrition reminds us of a deeper paradox of media power: The bigger and mightier the media organization, the wider the range of interests state meddling may harm, and the greater the organization’s sensitivity to government criticism. Hence, faced with congressional discomfort, the network response was immediate: Capitulation.

But the re-emergence of sex wasn’t confined to on-air improprieties. There is the issue of whether states should grant to unions of same-sex couples the same legal standing conferred on heterosexual marriage.

Blocking that possibility warrants, in the judgment of our president, amending the Constitution. And in the judgment of the news media, it warrants daily news footage of gay weddings conducted illicitly in the breakaway province of San Francisco.

Viewers who aren’t permitted to see a clear shot of Janet Jackson’s breast and can’t listen as Howard Stern quizzes some bimbo about the weirdest place she ever did it can at least watch news footage of brides giving each other big wet kisses (the networks being, for some reason, more eager to show lesbians smooching than homosexual guys.)

But what is it with all this sex? Is licentiousness so widespread that it deserves such high-level attention? Does the society really face an assault on its core values? Is discord over sexual mores truly one of our society’s most profound fault lines?

Or is there a more likely reality, one that has to do less with the collapse of moral values than with the collapse of news values?

Maybe what this sex resurgence suggests is that market-driven news — which already has no incentive to distinguish the public interest from what interests the public — can’t be relied on to perform one of the key functions of the news: setting the public agenda.

So the world’s most influential media play around endlessly with a bone-headed moment of televised nudity, while a neighboring democracy is subverted and destroyed, the people of a country we conquered are busy killing each other, and a dozen matters of incomparably greater significance than a naked nipple slide away from public concern.

That’s something that those who seek to manipulate the public would be wise to remember. For all the talk of news media that are tough-minded and adversarial, they’re run by people who are in a nonstop fight for audiences. And nothing sells like sex.

Deal makes Murdoch the mightiest media mogul

January 8, 2004

In the spirit of giving, just before Christmas regulators approved a proposal from Rupert Murdoch that will make him the country’s mightiest media baron. By a 3-2 vote, the Federal Communications Commission gave Murdoch’s News Corp. permission to buy control of DirecTV, the No. 1 U.S. satellite broadcaster.

Like the FCC’s plan to scrap key protections against concentrated media ownership, which sparked heated protest when it was made final in June, Murdoch’s DirecTV buyout has consequence way beyond what its passing mention on the country’s business pages would suggest.

News Corp. is huge. Even before the $6.6 billion DirecTV deal, its U.S. holdings included:

35 TV stations, reaching more than 44 percent of the U.S. population. (In nine cities, it owns more than one station.)

A major broadcast network: Fox.

11 national and 22 regional cable and satellite channels (including Fox News, FX, National Geographic)

• The New York Post, Weekly Standard and HarperCollins Publishers

Production studios including Twentieth Century Fox

PanAmSat Corp., the satellite owner that most U.S. cable systems (DirecTV’s competitors) rely on for the signals they relay to homes.

With all that, the DirecTV deal puts Murdoch in a different class of mogulhood. The breadth of News Corp.’s holdings now exceeds even Time Warner’s, whose cable systems lack national reach and which owns no local TV stations.

But it’s not just size. DirecTV gives News Corp. a stunning degree of vertical integration. That means it controls the entities that it buys from, the entities that it sells to, and now the channels through which programming flows into homes. It will have enormous power over pricing, lowering rates to build audiences or starve competitors, raising prices to reap profit.

There was a time when antitrust policy frowned on vertical integration. In 1948 authorities forced the Hollywood studios to sell off their theater chains. It was deemed intolerable to empower moviemakers to favor the screens they owned with preferential deals on top films.

Now free-market anti-regulators profess boundless faith in unconstrained competition. So News Corp. will preside at every level of media operation: from creation and production, to distribution and exhibition on TV screens (and the hot new industry of set-top middleware.)

The DirecTV deal didn’t come easy. At first News Corp. was outbid by EchoStar, the No. 2 U.S. satellite broadcaster. Murdoch responded with a ferocious lobbying campaign to get regulators to block the Echo-Star deal on antitrust grounds.

Murdoch is reported to have spent some $10 million in lobbying from 1999 to 2002, and gave lavishly to political campaigns, more than $1.7 million in the 2000 and 2002 election cycles. That outreach was in the context of Murdoch’s own emergence as a major force in the right-wing ideological regency, with his New York Post a persistent pro-Bush voice in the country’s most influential media market and Fox News — the top cable news channel — the most faithful TV megaphone for conservative opinion and commentary.

In October 2002, the FCC rejected the EchoStar bid, clearing the way for Murdoch’s DirecTV takeover — at a substantial savings off the price he offered when he bid unsuccessfully against EchoStar.

The FCC’s conservative majority attached conditions to its approval intended to force News Corp. to deal fairly with cable systems, which are DirecTV’s rivals, when they buy programming from News Corp. entities. But those conditions, inexplicably, expire in six years.

By then we will have entered a new era of media ownership. Stay tuned.

Knowing when to keep quiet

June 2, 2003

The media often air their dirty laundry in public, as the flap over reporting fraud reminds us. But that’s just the newsroom sheets and towels. Picking through linen from the media’s corporate suites, that’s another matter, altogether more discreet.

Consider the sparse coverage of the Federal Communications Commission’s plans to weaken safeguards against broadcasting monopoly.

“We are on the eve of the most sweeping and potentially most destructive overhaul of ownership laws in the history of American broadcast — and most people have no idea what’s about to happen to them and their media,” Jonathan Adelstein, one of two dissident commissioners, told a recent Atlanta gathering.

As of last week the FCC’s three-member Republican majority still wouldn’t say precisely what they plan. Being ruled by political hacks means they don’t tell you much, especially when their allies spare them the bother of appearing on Capitol Hill.

This week the FCC is expected to gut cross-ownership restrictions that deter companies from owning TV stations and daily newspapers in the same markets. That way, local print monopolies can become powerful broadcasters, and TV-owning giants will become press lords without relinquishing any electronic holdings.

Also, the FCC would allow the same company to own three TV stations in big markets, and a single broadcaster will be permitted to reach 45 percent of the U.S. population, up from 35 percent. (In reality, thanks to a sleight of hand that discounts audiences of UHF stations, the new cap could actually be 90 percent.)

Who’ll benefit? The same worthies that have already turned your 100-plus channels into such a cultural treasure.

Viacom, which owns CBS, could buy more stations. Ditto Disney, with ABC, and General Electric’s NBC. And AOL Time Warner. Media General and Paxson Communications. And Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., whose mouth-breathing Fox News is such an administration favorite that it already exceeds the current cap.

FCC chairman Michael Powell, a politico whose dad is secretary of state, embraces the neoliberal line that the oh-so free market these giants control should be left alone. Monopoly? We have lots of channels now, even if many have the same owners.

Still, the changes drew intense opposition. Some 97 percent of the comment the FCC received is hostile. Opponents fear seeing ever more of the country’s media in fewer hands. They note Clinton-era radio deregulation enabled Clear Channel to grow from 40 to 1,225 stations, and essentially destroyed local radio.

Opponents — from feminist pacifists to the Conference of Catholic Bishops to Common Cause to creative artists to pro-family activists — have filed an astonishing 20,000 protests to the FCC. Thousands more came from National Rifle Association members who believe media giants are anti-gun.

All that heat over plans 72 percent of the public knows nothing about, according to the Pew Center for People and the Press.

“There has been a thundering silence in the broadcast media,” observed a Consumers Union official. An ABC News report May 15 was the only broadcast news coverage of the proposals, Reuters reported last week.

Chairman Powell allowed one hearing, in February, in media capital Richmond, Va. “None of the networks covered the event,” online magazine Salon reported, “nor did the cable outlets, and neither did the Boston Globe, the Providence Journal, the Hartford Courant, the New York Times, the New York Daily News, the Philadelphia Inquirer, USA Today, the Baltimore Sun, the Atlanta Constitution, the Miami Herald, the Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle, the Arizona Republic, the San Diego Tribune, the Portland Oregonian, the Denver Post, the Kansas City Star, the Indianapolis Star or the Detroit Free Press.”

Newspaper chains from the New York Times Co., to Tribune Co. to Gannett to Belo oppose the cross-ownership ban. Reporters don’t normally build careers by defying the people who sign their paychecks.

True, there’s been coverage. This column draws from 38 stories in 18 publications or web sites.

But that doesn’t mean the media did their job. That job includes insisting that policy change of such potential consequence belongs high on a national agenda of public concerns.

Maybe reporters, like all of us, are so conditioned to believe in the almighty marketplace that they can’t imagine a broadcasting system organized around needs — not just market niches.

Consider: Of hundreds of cable channels, is there even one for people without money? Just one for the tens of millions who are paid badly and have little. It might let them speak, advise them how to shop, cook, deal with landlords, forage for better jobs, stretch their dollars.

Is there a network for the disabled? One for the mentally ill, the elderly, for immigrants? All huge audiences with enormous needs, people who are marginal in one respect only: spending power.

Instead we have an explosion of shabby micro-networks, really electronic factory outlets.

Never, until the advent of broadband cable and satellite, has so miraculous a communications technology been turned so mindlessly to the sole purpose of moving merchandise, with so little thought of betterment, of service, of alternatives.

Alerting us to those alternatives is the media’s job. Too bad their owners had better things for them to do.