FCC testimony on media ownership: Joel Kelsey

Hi. My name is Joel Kelsey; I’m the grassroots coordinator for Consumers Union, the non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports. In addition to providing consumers with independent research and analysis of products through a magazine, we also fight for a fair and just market place by standing up for consumer rights in public policy. I would like to thank Reclaim the Media, the Seattle Times, and KBCS for the opportunity to testify here tonight. I would also like to thank Commissioners Copps and Adelstein for being here; you’ve both been present at a number of these hearings throughout the nation, and I commend you for traveling throughout America to hear what we have to say about media policy. Thank you.

[I want] to briefly share the consumer angle on receiving and accessing local news and information through our media and to urge the FCC to avoid the dangerous path of weakening the current ownership caps. Above all, the American consumer values choice. We want the ability the choose not just between different mediums through which we access local news, but we also want the ability to choose between different voices, viewpoints, and opinions when we read, watch, or listen to local news. This is a very important distinction to make because it shows the consumers will not be fooled by recycled local news provided by the same company through different mediums.

Just because consumers can read different newspapers or tune to different local channels and stations, does not mean that we can easily access different viewpoints and voices when all these sources stem from the same parent company. We understand the difference between variety and diversity. The ability to choose among diverse local views and opinions is the choice the consumers crave and is the choice that a healthy democracy is built on.

When local media companies own and operate a majority of the local TV and radio stations from hundreds of miles away, local news coverage is significantly diluted (and congressman Inslee stole a little bit of my thunder here) but in fact a report recently made to the public by the FCC indicates that when its out-of-town media companies buy out smaller local stations the coverage of local issues significantly declines. The FCC found that locally owned radio and television stations air close to six minutes more local news per broadcast to stations with more distant owners. It all adds up to a very simple equation: lifting or weakening the caps on how many stations a company is able to own in one media market means large media conglomerates will swallow up more stations and provide viewers and listeners with less local news. This erosion of local news -- particularly in television -- is especially disturbing because local television broadcasters are one of only two sources on which Americans really rely to get information about issues and events that are relevant to their community.

In 2004, Consumers Union and the Consumer Federation of America randomly surveyed consumers to find out which news sources Americans depend on for local news and information. We found that most -- in fact 34% -- believe the major daily newspaper is the most important source of local news. Local television broadcasters followed in a close second, at 21%. So when people want to know what happened at the latest common council meeting or when the Salvation Armies have clothing drive days or when the next school board meeting is, they turn to their local television stations and newspapers.

These are by far the two most dominant sources of local news and information. And so all these different numbers tell us two things. One is that by lifting the ban on cross-ownership between television stations and the local major dealing newspaper, the FCC would be allowing the two most competitive sources of local news to merge. It’s a dangerous thing for meted democracy in America. The second thing is that, by easing the caps on television and radio station ownership, the FCC will be adding fuel to the fire that is gobbling up local news coverage. This means that the FCC decides to once again walk down that dangerous road of lifting or easing the already weakened ownership caps; this would be undermining any remaining benefits of local competition, it would be limiting consumer choice, and making it much harder for localism and diversity to thrive in the American media.We urge the FCC to avoid this path and instead fulfill its mission for encouraging localism and diversity by putting the will of the American public before the purse strings of the American media industry. Thank you for listening.

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