The fight over media monopoly goes on

February 7, 2005

There’s reason to applaud the Bush administration’s decision to abandon the latest drive to loosen the rules against concentrated media ownership. The Justice Department says it won’t challenge a court ruling that blocked the controversial changes the Federal Communications Commission was pushing. They would have raised the number of media operations in a given place that could be in one owner’s hands. In the biggest cities, a single company would have been allowed three TV stations, eight radio stations and a cable operator. The changes would also have relaxed the ban on common ownership of TV stations and newspapers. And they would have raised the overall percentage of the country’s population one company’s TV stations can reach.

Although those June 2003 proposals got only modest coverage in the news, a ragtag opposition mounted an unexpectedly fierce protest. The FCC received some 2 million letters, most of them opposed.

The battle isn’t over. Proceeding without administration support, newspaper powerhouse (and broadcast owner) Tribune Co. and three TV networks — Fox, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.; CBS, owned by Viacom; and NBC, owned by General Electric — all say they’ll appeal to the Supreme Court. So will the National Association of Broadcasters, which represents 1,100 local stations. (The stations have big bucks at stake in the FCC plan, since it would enable the richest companies in the industry to be potential buyers.)

But for now, the administration backdown is good news, and a reminder that media policy — which since the advent of commercial broadcasting in the late 1920s has been negotiated largely behind closed doors — can sometimes shove its way onto the public agenda.

Still, it’s worth asking what the defeat of the proposals will accomplish, and whether it’s likely to improve what’s most troublesome about the media business.

Take the ownership ceiling. The FCC wanted to raise the proportion of households a single company’s TV stations could reach to 45 percent. It was 35 percent. After public outcry over the FCC proposal, the White House got Congress to fix the cap at 39 percent. That was supposedly a “rollback;” it actually raised the ceiling, apparently to allow both Viacom and News Corp. to keep stations they would have had to relinquish. (Naturally, that would never predispose Viacom’s CBS or News Corp.’s Fox News to be kind to the administration.)

But as an obstacle to monopoly, the cap doesn’t matter: It covers only over-the-air TV. Some 85 percent of households get TV via cable or satellite, and nobody’s suggesting limits on who can own the cable networks that reach them all — from ESPN to CNN to Discovery to Lifetime.

The FCC plan to relax the cross-ownership ban, which supposedly keeps TV broadcasters from publishing newspapers, was a different matter. It was an idea bad enough to warrant killing. That’s because newspaper chains are the small fry of the media world – Gannett, the biggest, has less than one-fifth the revenues of Time-Warner — and giants such as General Electric or News Corp. would have been allowed to buy commanding positions in the print business by acquiring a Tribune or Knight-Ridder without selling off any TV stations.

But the cross-ownership ban still does nothing to keep newspapers and broadcasters from consolidating their operations through chummy newsroom partnerships. Independent voices are dwindling anyway, and the FCC has given up insisting that broadcasters meet public service programming standards.

So this victory means little to media reform. The FCC will soon require cable companies to carry not just the existing signals of local broadcasters, but the full range of signals the stations will transmit on the digital frequencies the agency awarded them free of charge. Every broadcaster would be guaranteed not one but five cable channels — still with no public service requirement.

Then there’s the troublesome reality of vertical integration. That’s when the same company that owns the TV stations or cable companies also owns the studios that produce their programming — and owns the syndicates that distribute the programs for years to come. Once, that was forbidden. For the past decade it’s been legal, and independent program production has suffered.

And even that doesn’t address the colonization of the Internet.

Once, the three pillars of U.S. media policy were diversity, competition and localism. They’re not bad policy objectives, if only somebody would take seriously the job of pursuing them.

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