Media Politics: The Federal Consolidation Commission

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by Jonathan Lawson

The Federal Communications Commission exists in order to manage the use of a limited resource--the broadcast airwaves--in a way that best serves the public and democratic values. Without oversight from a publically accountable agency, scarce bandwidth would simply be gobbled up by the few broadcasters with the most power and the most money, and most everyone else would be squeezed out. Cynics will point out that the FCC has hardly kept this from happening anyway, especially in the last few years in which deregulation has allowed a small handful of aggressive, ambitious companies to snatch up many hundreds of stations.

The FCC's commitment to their stated objectives of “protecting and advancing diversity, competition and localism” will face an important test over the next several months; on Sept. 12 the FCC suddenly announced the launch of an unprecedentedly broad review of the rules limiting media ownership. The move is widely understood as a signal that the Commission leadership intends to gut the rules, further encouraging an industry trend towards consolidation which picked up speed during the Reagan years and went into overdrive after the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

Actually, the announcement wasn’t really so sudden; Powell had announced his intention to review the ownership rules last fall. Even the timing of the announcement seems predictable in hindsight--tucked into the media shadow of Sept. 11, and, perhaps more importantly, coinciding with the opening day of the NAB meeting in Seattle. The announcement was followed two weeks later by the release of a sheaf of FCC-ordered academic studies on the effects of consolidation on competition and diversity. Not surprisingly, the FCC studies suggest that having 500 stations owned by a single national company instead of by local or regional owners, has little effect on diversity and localism.

This is the way the NAB's corporate media players view consolidation—for them, megamergers are simply a sign of the new economic times. Sure, some low-level employees lose their jobs or have to take on extra duties, but the potential economic benefits for the few remaining owners will help to make their companies "more competitive." NAB public relations staff greeted curious reporters with smooth assurances that media mergers are good for the consumer, that the intense consolidation of the radio industry has actually created more-not less-diversity on the airwaves. The most often-repeated piece of evidence for this is the explosion of Spanish-language stations in the last ten years. Never mind that many of these stations run only cookie-cutter programming originating hundreds of miles away, have little or no public affairs programming, and fill the airwaves with beer ads and lewd sexual jokes.

For media activists critiquing media deregulation, this is fake diversity – the diversity of Wal-Mart, where viewers and listeners across much of the country have a range of choices - the same range in Baton Rouge as in Bozeman, largely determined by a small group of corporate media managers. Programming which threatens the bottom line, like untested or insufficiently cross-promoted music, or costly local news departments, is easily lined up for the chopping block.

You can let the FCC know what you think about this issue during a two-month public comment period this fall (more on that in a future column).

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey