Media regulators miss the point

May 26, 2008

From the Senate floor, the Federal Communications Commission is denounced for kneeling before business by allowing broadcast owners to buy newspapers. From the executive suite, the same FCC is denounced for bullying business by forcing broadcast owners to file meticulous reports detailing what they do to serve their communities.

So does that mean the commission is getting things about right — maneuvering between industry and the public in a way that favors neither unduly and annoys both in rightful measure?

Or do we have a moment when the way policy makers think about media power is exposed as the incoherent muddle it is?

Take the ownership issue. Last year the FCC decided to relax longstanding rules meant to stave off local informational monopolies, and decided that newspapers and TV stations in big cities could be owned by the same companies.

The commission had proposed more sweeping liberalization in 2003. Today’s version is less brazen, and would apply only to the country’s top 20 markets. It’s still, on balance, a bad idea, would do little to help robust local news to survive, and forbids consolidation in smaller places where it might actually do some good.

That the Senate would bestir itself to take a stand against media monopolization is a good thing.

But the FCC proposal is irrelevant to the most powerful currents of media concentration.

It applies only to two obsolescent technologies — print and over-the-air TV. Hence, it would do nothing to mitigate the truly tectonic shifts in media power, Microsoft marrying Yahoo, Google commanding terrifying levels of online market share, the galloping pace of Internet-related mergers. That’s the blast furnace where the real architecture of 21st century informational might is being forged.

Even now, far more troubling media consolidation than any covered by the reviled FCC proposal passes unnoticed. Cablevision — the cable mini-giant, owner of the AMC and IFC networks, Madison Square Garden and the New York Knicks and Rangers — is paying $650 million for Long Island’s Newsday, the country’s 11th biggest paper.

No matter how much of Long Island relies on cable for TV, the FCC has no licensing authority over Cablevision, which can merge its way into unassailable informational supremacy over 7.5 million people, with not a peep from the nation’s chief electronic communications regulator.

The FCC can’t touch cable, but it still wants local over-the-air TV stations to document what they’re doing for the communities they are licensed to serve. That used to be a routine practice, part of the commission’s duty to decide whether the holders of broadcast licenses were serving the “public convenience and necessity.”

In the deregulatory era, license renewals became all but automatic. Now, under the banner of encouraging localism and diversity, the commission has proposed extensive accountability requirements for licensees: What programs are you airing? What have you done to determine what your community wants? Who precisely do you imagine your “community” is? And more.

The industry is mightily annoyed. The broadcast news directors group says the rules are so burdensome they would force stations to shift news staff onto pointless record-keeping.

The prospect that local TV news could be even more worthless is disturbing, but more striking is how out of touch the FCC is with the looming realities of local broadcasting. Its accountability demand, burdensome or not, is decades late — and has missed the moment when it might have done some good.

It’s meant to encourage localism and diversity, but we’re on the cusp of a new era when localism will be all that’s left for local TV stations anyway. That’s because the national networks are eager to get around those local stations altogether and channel their shows directly to audiences via cable, Internet, mobile phones, molar implants  — telepathy, soon enough — anything that will save them having to share the ad revenues.

Plus, local stations are about to get even more channels to fill once they make the long-awaited move to the digital spectrum next year. What will they fill with? Cheap, hyper-local programming, tailored to intensely local advertisers and interests, whether neighborhood sound-offs, Pop Warner football or peewee soccer.

Broadcasting is about to launch into a craven new world of localism, with programs of unimagined triviality.

And so policy makers spar over issues that either don’t matter or matter in ways that they misunderstand. The consolidation they deplore is a sideshow, the localism they extol may yet make the rest of us shudder.

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