What is the FCC Up To?
By Karen Young
Do any of these items count among your daily frustrations? Soaring cable and internet-access prices, no choice of providers, and poor service? Radio and television that's all right wing, all the time? "Local" newscasts and newspapers that have no real local news or election coverage? Radio that sounds the same all over the country, including 15-minute blocks of commercials? What do all these things have in common? They're all brought to you by MEDIA DEREGULATION POLICIES - and you ain't seen nothing yet. Over the past twenty years or so, and especially since 1996, media deregulation has allowed a few global concerns to swallow up many smaller companies. Now, a group of less than a dozen companies completely dominates the media landscape. The few remaining shreds of regulation are about to be gutted. Why does media policy matter? As conditions in the world get worse - recession, war, healthcare costs, environmental destruction, threats to civil liberties, just to name a few - our access to information shrinks. How can we protect our rights and find solutions to the world's problems if we can't find out what's really going on?
The Federal Communications Commission is currently considering the elimination of most remaining regulations that place limits on media ownership and require certain levels of diversity. This is only the latest of many recent FCC decisions that have steadily put more power in the hands of the largest media companies. Former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt called this "the most radical view of media consolidation that any democracy has ever supported. Not a single person in America would say it's a good idea. It's exclusively driven by ideology and business interests." The FCC released a group of 12 studies, which all purport to show there's been no real negative effects from media ownership consolidation. The agency was required to have a period of public comment before enacting such changes (which lasted four months, and got a shred of publicity), and reluctantly held a single official public hearing on the matter--in Richmond, Virginia (though other "unofficial" hearings have been held in New York and Los Angeles, with scheduled hearings in Chicago, Seattle, and Raleigh-Durham). The chief of the FCC's Media Bureau, Kenneth Ferree, called public discussion "an exercise in foot-stomping." Victoria Riskin of the Writers' Guild of America warned that "such rhetoric should be a cause for alarm to all citizens who care about our democracy and about the future of free expression in America."
If you haven't heard about this, it's because the media don't want you to know. Media watchdog group Project Censored named this the #1 most censored story of 2002.
WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IF THE RULES WERE ELIMINATED?
USA Today said, "Some of the expected rule changes would make it theoretically possible for one CEO to run AOL Time Warner, NBC, Clear Channel, and the New York Times." Regardless of what particular combinations resulted, it's clear that we'd wind up with far fewer voices being heard. One important rule being threatened is called the 35% cap. This keeps a single network from owning stations that broadcast to more than 35% of the nation's homes. Without this law, CBS could buy the NBC stations and run its content on both. Another is the cross-ownership rule - this prevents one company from owning television, radio, and newspaper outlets in the same market. Currently there are a handful of markets with such combinations that were "grandfathered" when the rule was put into effect. If the rule is eliminated, these super-monopolies could happen everywhere.
When different types of media come under the same ownership - just as in any merger - one result is that many jobs are eliminated. Instead of each outlet having its own reporters, producers, etc., one group of people produces work that runs on multiple outlets. They also share content across markets. Instead of sending a reporter from Seattle to Washington, for instance, the Seattle station might just pick up content produced by its Washington affiliate. There have even been discussions involving a merger of ALL THREE major networks - ABC, CBS, and NBC - about merging their overseas news operations into one. 10,000 jobs in radio have disappeared, and with them a great deal of local content and local control, since the Telecommunications Act of 1996 unleashed a tidal wave of ownership consolidation in radio.
Also, when the big companies "bulk up" not only on media outlets but also on related businesses, such as radio giant Clear Channel also owning concert promoters and venues, they have an unfair advantage over other media outlets with advertisers and vendors. This drives prices up and media competitors out of business, leaving even fewer choices for consumers and citizens.
CAN THE INTERNET SAVE US?
Some say we don't need so many traditional broadcast and print outlets because there's all the diversity one could ever want - on the Internet. This is the thesis of one of the FCC studies. But according to Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy, "the industry's vision for the Internet is the online equivalent of [broadcast companies'] seizing the taxpayer-owned airwaves." Giant cable companies like AT&T and Comcast want to control subscribers' access to both content and usage. They're pushing hard for tiered and usage-based pricing. That means that instead of paying a flat rate for Internet access as you do now, you'd pay different rates for different content, and pay more for 50 hours of usage than for 10. That's a bonanza for them, but bad news for consumers and citizens. They've already set up this kind of pricing in some test markets. And what if you're part of the big block of people - more than 30% of adults in most markets - who don't have internet access at all? At his first press conference, FCC Chairman Michael Powell was asked what he was going to do about the "digital divide" - that is, income-based inequality of Internet access. His response was, "You know, I think there is a Mercedes divide. I'd like to have one and I can't afford one."
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Spread the word! Copy this article and hand it out. Write op-eds and letters to the editor, call talk shows, and ask reporters to cover this issue.
Write or call Congress. We need political pressure to convince representatives to stand up to media companies. Visit www.democraticmedia.org to send a letter.
Join or start a news monitoring project in your town. It's possible to prove that the FCC's claims of continued program diversity in spite of media consolidation are false. Contact Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting at www.fair.org for advice on how to do it.
Send a comment to the FCC. Even thought the official comment period has passed, comments from the public should still be sent to emphasize the gravity of the matter. Particularly if you work in the industry and have firsthand knowledge of particular negative effects of consolidation, the FCC needs to hear from you. If you can, take time to look at the studies and see if there's particular facts or conclusions you have evidence to challenge. See www.democraticmedia.org for links and advice on this.