Watchdogs worry as FCC likely to ease media ownership rules
WESTPHAL; News Tribune Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - For more than a half-century, the federal government
has kept a wary watch on the concentration of big media power, nervous
that a handful of broadcast and newspaper companies might corner the
market on information and commentary.
Now, arguing that successive revolutions in cable TV and the Internet
have drastically reduced the clout of media moguls by enlarging the
field of competition, federal regulators will relax their guard.
On Monday, Republican members of the Federal Communications Commission
are expected to push through new regulations that ease ownership barriers.
Michael Powell, the FCC chairman who has led the campaign for relaxing
the old rules, says they're no longer needed in a world in which the
number of media outlets has nearly tripled in the last four decades.
"It simply has become more difficult to just assert that an ownership
restriction is essential to promoting diverse viewpoints, where so
many outlets and owners thrive," Powell said recently.
Even so, Powell's likely victory, on an expected 3-2 party-line vote,
will emerge only after a fierce fight from Democrats and an eclectic
assortment of opposition groups. Organizations ranging from the Consumer
Federation of America to the National Rifle Association say that,
despite a changed media environment, the new rules inevitably would
lead to ownership concentration and a stifling of information.
"It violates every tenet of a free democratic society to let
a handful of powerful companies control our media," said Democratic
FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein.
For many of the largest broadcast and newspaper companies, Monday's
FCC action will be the culmination of a long lobbying campaign. The
commission is likely to:
•Allow broadcast networks to own more local affiliates. Currently,
networks cannot own local stations that, taken together, reach more
than 35 percent of the national audience. The FCC vote is likely to
raise that number to 45 percent.
•Wipe out for most parts of the country the cross-ownership rule,
which prohibits media companies from owning a community's dominant
newspaper along with a TV or radio station. The ban may be retained
in small markets.
•Increase the number of television stations a single company can own
in a large market from two to three. Existing rules limiting ownership
to two stations in a midsize market and one in a small market are
expected to remain.
No one knows exactly how quickly or aggressively media companies will
initiate mergers, acquisitions and swaps. Even after FCC approval,
the rules could face court tests, and some in Congress are vowing
legislative efforts to overturn the action.
But Michael Copps, another Democratic commissioner who opposes the
rule changes, predicts a "veritable gold rush of media-company
buying and selling." Copps said he has heard about acquisitions
"where the terms are already decided, the deal is done."
Powell's case has other dimensions. In particular, he says, inaction
could push over-the-air networks toward extinction because of the
growing popularity of cable and satellite stations. "Free television
itself serves a very important public interest, yet its future is
not guaranteed," he said.
Opponents respond that Powell's arguments are merely cover for an
ideologically motivated campaign to free media giants from government
Much of the expansion in new media outlets in recent years has resulted
in only tiny gains in market share, they say, leaving traditional
media in control of the marketplace.
"Public policy should err in favor of more competition rather
than less so communities can enjoy a greater diversity of viewpoints
so critical to democratic dialogue and debate," said Gene Kimmelman
of the Consumers Union.
Opponents also contend the FCC has already demonstrated how rapid
concentration can occur through its handling of radio market deregulation
A study by the Future of Music Coalition, which represents musicians
and recording artists, says just two companies, Clear Channel and
Viacom, now control 45 percent of radio revenues nationally. Jenny
Toomey, the group's executive director, said a "radical deregulation"
of radio has resulted in "less competition, fewer viewpoints
and less diversity in programming."
While defending the radio deregulatory plan, Powell appears likely
to put the brakes on further radio concentration at Monday's meeting.
The new confrontation has created its share of strange bedfellows.
As expected, opponents include many Democrats and liberal-oriented
interest groups. But their ranks also include Republicans such as
Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska and conservative groups such as the NRA
and the Parents Television Council.
Brent Bozell, president of the parents group, said the networks increasingly
have a lock on TV programming that many in the country find offensive.
"The concept of community programming is alien to the suits in
New York," he said.
The owners of all four big networks - ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox - are
lined up in favor of the eased restrictions. So are many of the largest
newspaper companies that also own broadcast properties - Gannett Co.,
Tribune Co., Hearst Corp., Media General Inc. and Belo Corp. The newspaper
industry's primary trade association, the Newspaper Association of
America, has been one of the key drivers for the cross-ownership rules
But not all media companies are on board.
Many local broadcast stations oppose the idea of allowing networks
to buy more affiliates, saying it would give too much programming
clout to the big networks. A few newspaper companies also oppose the
action - most notably The Seattle Times and its publisher, Frank Blethen,
who has been waging a fierce defense of family-owned newspaper companies.
The McClatchy Co., which owns The News Tribune and 10 other dailies
around the country, has taken no position on the proposal with the
FCC. But Gary Pruitt, the company's chairman and chief executive,
says McClatchy "won't be leading the charge to buy television
... in our newspaper markets."
Dale Kasler of The Sacramento Bee contributed to this report.