Every couple of months, the Seattle Times prints an opinion piece on the evils of media concentration. The normally conservative paper is locked in a battle for control of the Seattle newspaper market with a large media conglomerate (the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, published by Hearst Corporation), and therefore holds a vested interest, as Hearst controls enough resources to buy a local TV station, should they desire to control the market. Bill Clinton wrote an op-ed that ran in July of last year; I responded to it at length here. Now, another Democratic politician, Alex Alben, launches another broadside against the ephemeral concept of "media concentration".
Media concentration — the trend of more corporations owning more and more news outlets — is a silent killer of our democracy and marketplace of ideas.
Gotta love the metaphorMedia Concentration is equivalent to ovarian cancer, Carbon Monoxide poisoning, high blood pressure, stress, Hepatitis C, or any one of the thousands of other medical conditions that result in the death of tens of thousands of people every year. Nothing like overstating the case in the first paragraph.
Today, CBS has been merged into Viacom, which also owns MTV, the Infiniti radio group and a host of other media properties. Like the other networks, it no longer brings us live "gavel to gavel" coverage of political conventions. Instead, radio audiences are treated to "shock jocks" and football fans had to suffer through half-time "entertainment" that brought into question the network's commitment to its license obligations.
The networks no longeer bring us gavel-to-gavel coverage of political conventions because the public doesn't want to watch 24/7 political advertisements. If one wishes to watch such a thing, there is C-SPAN, which is available to just about anyone with cable TV. It's called sound business, as the networks are supposed to make money.
As for the "shock jocks" and Nipplegate, media concentration has nothing to do with either. They are simply red herrings thrown up to give the appearance of substance to the argument.
The key point to remember is that we, the public, own the airwaves — for radio, TV and new data services — not the corporations who are routinely granted licenses to rent them. Exploiting a public resource, broadcasters used to feel an obligation to create great public affairs programming, to police indecent programming and to abide by a Fairness Doctrine for public debate. Over the past 30 years, the FCC rules and self-imposed regulation that created this atmosphere for respecting the "public" dimension of the public airwaves has gradually withered away with each new call for deregulation.
Few people saw the danger signs, as each small rule was removed from the books. We lost the seven-station rule, abandoned the Fairness Doctrine and started to grant nearly automatic renewal of broadcast licenses, under the theory that requiring radio and television stations to list public-affairs programming was so much "paperwork."
Yes, the airwaves belong to the people, but since very few people own the resources to start up a TV network, a corporation is an appropriate proxy, since they are owned by the public. Don't like what CBS is broadcasting? Buy a share of Viacom's stock and attend a stockholders meeting.
Each time cultural conservatives or moderates call for a tightening of rules against indecent programming, the left-dominated Hollywood Elite (and their cohorts in New York) excoriate them for "imposing religious views" on everyone else. It's hardly the boardrooms of corporations alone that are responsible for the state of programming (radio and TV) as it stands today.
The Fairness Doctrine (now abolished) was anything but fair. See this link (from the conservative Heritage Foundation) on why it is better left dead.
Congress recently considered allowing one corporation to own stations reaching up to 45 percent of the national television audience. And this corporation could also own newspapers, cable systems, satellite networks and motion picture studios. With the proposed merger of Disney and Comcast, this debate will stay on the front burner.
The guardians of the public airwaves should pause to think about a universe where large cable companies (or satellite networks) own our most successful content companies. What rules would be in place to assure that every voice — whether expressed in music, drama or writing — will be given access in an industrial combination where the distributor wholly owns the shop that generates the content?
Lost in the fearful rhetoric is the simple point that it doesn't matter. When discussing local news, there is little meaning about which corporation owns the station. When discussing national news, it doesn't matter which corporation owns the station, as it will be running news programs from one of the big three networks. Unless Alben is advocating breaking up CBS, ABC, and NBC, it DOESN'T MATTER who owns the station. as the content producers will remain the same. (The networks all produce their own news shows, so reducing the number of companies that own the studios will not affect the news divisions.)
Further, as I noted in my earlier post, allowing a single corporation to own channels that reach 45% (as opposed to the current 35%) does not guarantee that the stations will reach ANYONE, as they will be competing with a multitude of stations in each market (network and independent), as well as cable channels.
As an Internet executive, I was frequently called upon to validate the theory that the multitude of voices available on the Web makes traditional media ownership rules obsolete. But I couldn't agree with this conclusion. Yes, there are millions of Web sites featuring a wild variety of unique opinions. Yet, the Internet also has the effect of magnifying the traditional voices of the biggest media brands. The most popular Internet sites for use, for example, are all owned by the major TV and print media companies.
...And few of those internet companies were in existence ten years ago, and even fewer were created by the media giants who currently own them. One of the best features of the internet is that the cost of starting a website is virtually nil (totally free if you use of the sites such as GeoCities or Blog*Spot), and your audience is not bound by the geographical constraints faced by traditional media. Internet sites remain popular only as long as they provide the public with what it wants; computer consumers don't have the brand loyalty common to other products.
It's time for Congress to seriously review media ownership rules, and give the FCC clear guidance to connect license renewal to a commitment to high quality public affairs programming. This may not require rigid new rules, but rather should aim to stimulate broadcasters to put the "public" back into the public airwaves they utilize to conduct their highly profitable businesses.
How does Alben propose to accomplish his goal? I seriously doubt that anything other than rigid rules will accomplish it, and shaping the media to his ideals is substituting one form of tyranny for another (the tyranny of the marketplace with the tyranny of government mandates).
We may no longer live in the VHF world of three major news outlets per city, but we can't afford to further relax the media ownership restrictions. It's time to revive the commitment of media companies to using the public airwaves to bring us rich and diverse news and public-affairs programming. True competition at all levels of the media landscape represents our best hope for raising the quality of debate on the pressing issues that face our society.
It all sounds nice, but none of it explains why one corporation buying another will have any effect on his stated aims of improving what we hear and see on the airwaves. It's just more yearning for the nanny state, in which no decision can be made without consulting a huge federal bureaucracy.
As if that was not enough, the Times also ran a rather unsubtle editorial on the same topic. They focus on the growth of Clear Channel Communications, the radio and billboard juggernaut, but let their true concern slip through in the third paragraph:
And for the first time, it would be generally permitted for one company to own a TV station and a daily newspaper in the same city.
Translation: Hearst could squash us.
It also notes that five companies now dominate American TV: the four broadcast networks and AOL Time Warner (which owns CNN and the WB, among other properties). Again, short of breaking up the networks, there is not going to be a greater number of companies dominating the landscape, unless another network is formed.
posted on March 31, 2004 08:24 PM
TV/newspaper crossownership in the same market was actually almost routine until the FCC started kvetching about it in the early Seventies. Here in the Okay City, the Oklahoma Publishing Company owned WKY-AM-TV and The Daily Oklahoman for many years, selling off WKY-TV in 1975 when the FCC granted OPUBCO a tax certificate for the sale. (The deal closed in January 1976.) If the Times believes this practice originated with Michael Powell, they're fulla crap.