It might not seem like the sexiest story, but the Federal Communications Commission’s decision last week to loosen restrictions on media consolidation and monopoly is arguably one of the most important developments of our day. It is a major blow for those who want diverse viewpoints represented on our airwaves, in our newspapers, and throughout our ‘Net. The decision guts consumer protections put in place between 1945 and 1975 to foster competition and prevent monopoly control of the media. Under the new rules, a single company can keep buying TV stations until it reaches 45 percent of American households; previously, the cap was set at 35 percent. The decision also weakens two important regulations that prevented monopolies in local media markets. One banned the ownership of multiple TV stations in a single market (in the largest cities, a company is now allowed to own up to three TV stations). The other prevented a company from owning a broadcast station and a newspaper in a single city (under the new rules, only in markets with three or fewer TV stations would this “cross-ownership” ban still be in effect).

What does all this mean? Thanks to the rule changes, media giants like News Corp., Viacom, and Gannett will be able to control even more TV stations, newspapers, and radio stations across the country. “We are moving to a world where in larger markets one owner can combine the cable system, three television stations, eight radio stations, the dominant newspaper, and the leading Internet provider, not to mention cable networks, magazine publishers and programming studios which could produce the vast bulk of the programming available to those outlets”, said dissenting FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps, in a statement released last week. “In my view, it is no exaggeration to say the rules now permit the emergence of a Twenty-First Century Citizen Kane on the local level, with perhaps a handful of Citizen Kanes on the national level.”

What made the decision so extraordinary was that it was made even as a broad coalition of citizens groups–conservative and liberal–rallied against it. Groups from the National Organization of Women to the National Rifle Association said that more consolidation would keep their opinions off the air and put too much power in the hands of a few already bloated corporations. Consumer advocates joined with small broadcasters, civil rights organizations joined with religious groups–denouncing as a chorus the relaxation of restrictions on “cross-ownership”, which they said would discourage news organizations from monitoring each other’s reporting and narrow the range of opinions presented for public consumption.

Conservative columnist William Safire went so far a to call the decision a “power grab” by the rich and powerful. “The concentration of power–political, corporate, media, cultural–should be anathema to conservatives”, he wrote last month in The New York Times. “Why do we have more channels but fewer real choices today? Because the ownership of our means of communication is shrinking. Moguls glory in amalgamation, but more individuals than they realize resent the loss of local control and community identity.”

Safire and others also complained that the FCC failed to take seriously the public’s opinion about whether to loosen the existing regulations. As it turned out, the FCC received a record number of comments from the public–almost three quarters of a million. “Nearly all oppose increased media consolidation–over 99.9 percent,” said Copps in his statement last week. “The spirit underlying the ‘notice and comment’ procedure of independent agencies is that important proposed changes need to be seen and vetted before they are voted. We haven’t been true to that spirit. Today we vote before we vet.”

Media conglomerates like Walt Disney Co. (owner of ABC) and News Corp. (owner of the Fox News Channel and Fox TV network) argued that the changes were needed because the dramatic growth of cable television, the Internet, and satellite TV had dramatically changed the industry. The free programming that networks like ABC and CBS have offered for decades could be in jeopardy, they argued, if these companies were not provided with more flexibility to make profits.

FCC Chairperson Powell, the son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, also pointed out that changing the rules was the only way to save them. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit had in recent years shot down several of the agency’s ownership rules, saying they were unjustified under present law. In fact, the 35-percent cap on TV station ownership that consumer advocates wanted kept in place had been unenforceable since 2001, when it was remanded by the court. “Keeping the rules exactly as they are, as some so stridently suggest, was not a viable option,” Powell said in a statement last week announcing the new rules.

But even if it’s true that reform was necessary, it does not follow that the FCC needed to stage a corporate coup d’etat of the likes of last week’s decision. For one thing, the arguments by large media companies that they need more flexibility to make profits is simply ludicrous. TV stations boast annual profit margins in the range of 20 to 50 percent, an astounding figure even in an industry as profitable as media. Just last month, a record $9.4 billion in upfront sales was purchased for the next season of network advertising, up 13 percent from the previous year.

Then there is the more troubling question of how relaxing regulations on media ownership in this day and age actually serves the public interest. After all, the changes that the FCC put in place last week threaten the two things that are crucial for healthy public debate: localism and diversity.

“I think we put into jeopardy a system that is reliant on local views and divergent thought,” Ben Turner, president of Fisher Broadcasting, told The Washington Post. Based in Seattle and broadcasting throughout the Pacific Northwest, Fisher Broadcasting is a medium-sized media company. Though the FCC insisted that the rule changes would encourage competition and help small broadcasters, Turner believes that the opposite is true. Local coverage will suffer, he says, as large companies buy up local TV stations and slash programming budgets. “The more power you give a few companies, the less opportunity you are going to have for a lot of divergent thought at the local level as a countercheck to network programming.”

Supporters of the relaxed regulations say that an open, unregulated market leads to a diversity of viewpoints. They point to the explosion of cable TV channels in recent years as evidence for this. But there’s reason to be suspicious of the claim. Remember that song by Bruce Springsteen, “57 Channels (And Nothing On)”? Having lots of options means little if the “options” are all the same. And as it turns out, almost all the top cable channels are owned by the same corporations that own the TV networks and cable systems. As for the programming that fills these airwaves and cable streams, the networks have substantially increased the amount that they own over the last decade–thanks to the absence of any restrictions on who owns programming. And so we’re left with hundreds of channels, thousands of media outlets–and the same mindless, formulaic shows. “A person can always add more electrical outlets throughout their home, but that doesn’t mean they will get their electricity from new sources. The same goes for media outlets,” said FCC Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein, who also voted against last week’s rule changes.

Perhaps we should look at what happened after a similar attempt to “encourage competition” in 1996, when Congress and the FCC decided to roll back regulations on the radio industry. What followed was a frenzy of corporate consolidation. “We saw a 34 percent reduction in the number of radio station owners,” Copps says. “Diversity of programming suffered. Homogenized music and standardized programming crowded out local and regional talent. Creative local artists found it evermore difficult to obtain play time.” And instead of encouraging a variety of viewpoints, the rapid consolidation of the radio industry has further “polarized” editorial opinion, Copps says. Consider the recent political activities of the country’s largest radio conglomerate, Clear Channel Communications. In 1995, it owned 43 radio stations; today it owns more than 1,200. Critics of the radio giant allege that it has used its clout to further its own political causes–promoting pro-war rallies during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and keeping critics of the war, like the Dixie Chicks, off of its play lists.

The FCC’s new rules endanger diversity in another way. Those individuals who usually have the most difficulty getting their point of view out into the public arena–people of color, rural Americans, gays and lesbians–will find their task even harder. In a further deregulated marketplace, the (few) small media companies that aren’t interested in selling their stations will quickly be pushed out of business by the media giants. Since minorities tend to be at the helm of these smaller media companies, this effectively means they will be shut out of media ownership.

As it is now, less than four percent of radio and television owners are people of color. According to the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters, the number of minority owners of broadcast facilities has dropped by 14 percent since 1997. Fearing that the FCC’s revised regulations would make this grim picture even worse, the Congressional Black, Hispanic, and Asian Pacific American caucuses on Capitol Hill all came out against last week’s decision.

For those who believed that the ‘Net might be the salvation of diversity in American media, think again: Almost a decade after the online revolution began, the top news sources are controlled by the same media giants who dominate radio, TV, newspapers, and cable. The new FCC regulations do little to stop the consolidation going on in our last bastion of media democracy–a consolidation that the agency has, in fact, encouraged over the past year. For instance, the FCC earlier this year gave regional phone companies the power to deny other companies access to their high-speed data pipelines. “This basically mirrored earlier policies allowing the cable companies, which also created networks by getting government-granted monopolies, to refuse to share access to their lines,” writes tech columnist Dan Gillmor in the San Jose Mercury News. “In other words, U.S. high-speed data access will soon be under the thumb of two of the most anti-competitive industries around.”

Fortunately, last week’s decision has not ended the public debate over how to regulate the media industry. The remarkable coalition of conservative and liberal groups that tried in vain to win over Powell’s commission is now putting pressure on lawmakers in Congress. So far, they’ve had some luck in the Senate, where Democrats and quite a few Republicans (including Mississippi Senator Trent Lott) have taken up the cause. Last week, Democratic Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts said he would file a “resolution of disapproval” to block the FCC’s rule changes, and Republican Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska introduced a bill to return the ownership cap to 35 percent. Even if it passes the Senate, however, the legislation will still need to pass muster in the House, where Republicans have an even heftier majority and the leadership has taken a more hostile attitude toward any additional regulations.

Much hangs in the balance. Mass media has always been the fabric of our sprawling democracy, allowing for public debate across a vast nation and making possible the very idea of government “by the people.” But now that control over the media is falling into the hands of a few, that debate–and that democracy–are in jeopardy.

If we do nothing to stop the federal government’s mad dash away from the public interest, the future that lies before us is grim indeed. At best, we will be served up ever larger helpings of the processed, formulaic, and focused-grouped content that we’ve grown to abhor on our evening news and prime-time TV; at worst, we will witness the corruption of our democracy, as media conglomerates silence local voices and limit the boundaries of public debate. At a time when the media already shapes so many of our perceptions of the world beyond our living rooms, the nightmare scenario might as well as be something out of The Matrix: a  “virtual” reality where everything we know, everything we think, has been packaged for our consumption by a few multinational corporations. Impossible, you say? I hope you’ll prove me wrong, and raise your voice before it’s drowned out.”

Victor Tan Chen is In The Fray‘s editor in chief and the author of Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy. Site: victortanchen.com | Facebook | Twitter: @victortanchen

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