A License for Power

Where's the conservative suspicion of the media now that we really need it? The Federal Communications Commission is preparing to roll back long-established rules limiting media ownership, a move that would make the media behemoths more powerful than ever. You might think that prospect would excite an outcry from the right as well as the left. But the FCC review is taking place with only scattered opposition and scarcely any public debate, thanks in part to a virtual news blackout by the media giants themselves.

The regulations under review limit media consolidation so as to prevent monopoly and preserve localism as well as diversity. The rules bar any company from owning television stations that reach more than 35 percent of the national audience, prevent networks from buying one another, cap the number of broadcast stations that a single company can own in a particular market, and restrict "cross-ownership" of newspapers and broadcast stations in a community.

The argument against the rules is that new media -- cable and satellite TV as well as the Internet -- have so expanded the range of options that we no longer need ownership limits to ensure diversity. For example, as cable channels have gained ground, the networks' share of the TV audience has dropped, so why continue to limit the networks' ownership of stations?

But it's a myth that new technology has entirely broken up the oligopoly that long dominated television. A new study by investment firm Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. shows that the top five programmers -- Viacom/CBS, Disney/ABC, News Corp./FOX, NBC and AOL Time Warner -- now command 75 percent of the prime-time viewers. The Bernstein study projects, moreover, that after buying up weaker cable channels, the top five will raise their total share to the 85-percent level reached by NBC, CBS and ABC at their peak.

If the FCC relaxes current ownership limits, these same companies are likely to buy an increasing number of stations and other media properties, gaining tighter control of TV than the networks had in their heyday when they were limited to owning just six of their local affiliates.

The best evidence for what's likely to happen in television comes from radio, which has undergone a radical shift toward concentrated ownership since Congress eliminated the national cap on station ownership in 1996. No company had owned more than 40 stations in 1990; today a single company, Clear Channel, owns more than 1,200, and Clear Channel and Viacom together own stations with 42 percent of the nation's listeners. In Minot, N.D., according to a recent article in The New York Times, Clear Channel owns all six commercial stations and has reduced the total staff for news reporting to a single employee who mainly reads wire-service reports. Commercial radio effectively no longer exists in Minot as a local communications medium.

The consolidation of radio ownership poses a particularly serious problem for the music industry and advertisers, but if the FCC removes the other limits on ownership, the ensuing consolidation could have far more ominous implications. Eager for positive TV news coverage and fearful of retribution, politicians are already loath to defy broadcasters. More mammoth media conglomerates in fewer hands will have even greater sway over public officials. And there is a special danger from mergers of newspapers and broadcast stations in particular communities: reduced news coverage of local affairs as staffs are combined and cut back.

Diversity in media ownership may well be inefficient in the sense that a single company can operate multiple broadcast stations and other media outlets at a lower cost than any combination of firms. But there is plainly a cost to diverse, robust and wide-open public debate that makes such consolidation undesirable on other grounds.

For most of American history, public policy favored a more decentralized media system, even at some cost. Postal policies were long designed to subsidize local papers; during the second half of the 19th century, for example, the Post Office delivered newspapers free of charge within the county where they were published -- a subsidy that protected local papers against more distant metropolitan rivals.

After radio broadcasting developed in the 1920s, the emergence of the NBC and CBS networks turned radio into a more uniformly national medium than newspapers had been. But even in this case, federal regulation prevented as tightly centralized a broadcasting system as developed under government ownership in other countries.

Support for localism and diversity has historically spanned party and ideological lines, often coming from members of Congress who represent smaller communities and states that have only limited local alternatives and are in jeopardy of ceding their media to outside control. With a few Republican senators from such states now signaling concern about the FCC review, this kind of bipartisan opposition to media consolidation may yet emerge. It's the one chance we have to keep some checks and balances in the mass media.

From the Moving Ideas Network: Information about the FCC and the organizations working to prevent the proposed rule changes.

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