Monday, November 2, 2009

FCC Commissioner Copps Challenges Broadcaster Responsiblity


The stance of Democratic FCC Commissioner Michael Copps on media ownership is well known. He is a harsh critic of media consolidation, and sees very little good that has come from it.

At the same time he recognizes the excellent work done by many in the broadcast community. At the 11/2/09 ownership workshop, he issued a challenge to the excellent – use this ownership review to stand up and make the case for strong local service.

His position is simple – in his view consolidated station groups with distant headquarters, focused on the bottom-line, Wall Street and massive debt-service, have been dropping the ball on serving their local communities and producing quality journalism, and he says this trend was already under way years before the recession rocked the economy.

When such a company is in the market with a committed local or regional broadcaster, it puts competitive pressure on the smaller local company that makes it much more difficult for the local company to survive, much less thrive, and diminishes its ability to continue maintaining high quality local content.

RBR-TVBR observation: We’ve heard complaints over the years from smaller broadcasters, who make up the vast majority of licensees. It’s easy for a consolidated, multi-market company, with a lot of stations in a local market, to do things to make life miserable for its smaller competitors. It can drive rates down, it can attack specifically-formatted stations, it can outbid locals for sports and quality syndication programming, it can throw in temporary game-changing amounts of cash, it can do all kinds of things. Is this a problem?

(Yes it is a big public policy problem affecting diversity of available news coverage, creates roadblocks to healthy competition, and may even raise serious anti-trust issues. - BD)

The issue: Promoting diversity or protecting free speech

Diversity, localism and competition. Those are the issues on the table as the FCC looks once again at media ownership rules.

At least one witness at the Media Ownership Workshop: Policy Scholars Panel 11/2/09 said these standards are worth regulating for.

Another said any rule beyond anti-trust statutes was a violation of the First Amendment.

C. Edwin Baker of the University of Pennsylvania argued that diverse media was an expression of democracy, that every member of society should be able to easily find a media outlet with which he can easily identify. The burden should be on those favoring more consolidation to prove that the need for it outweighs this democratic principle. He also argued that a large owner with control over a significant percentage of the media has the potential to exercise excessive influence over the debate of issues of the day; and on the flip side, he argued that large national companies are less beholden to local communities and more focused on profit, both conditions which diminish their commitment to providing quality local journalism.

On the other hand, former FCC Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth simply said that anything beyond anti-trust law put the government in general and the FCC in particular in the untenable position of deciding who could and could not speak. He said the First Amendment is easy to attack and that such attacks happen all the time. He mentioned blue laws – popular, on the books to attack religious non-religious minorities, which restrict those minorities’ speech, and the Nixonian cross-ownership rules, which he said were specifically put in place to punish certain journalism organizations.

RBR-TVBR observation: The US broadcast system is unique. It recognizes that the airwaves belong to the public, but it also recognizes if the airwaves are to be a venue for truly free speech, the government cannot have very much involvement in that speech at all. So the airwaves are licensed to private companies.

But each station is a megaphone, and the holder of one of these valuable licenses has a much louder voice than do fellow citizens.

For numerous reasons, minorities and women are under-represented in the ranks of media ownership.

Some companies have used their financial muscle to take advantage of relaxed ownership rules to grab a very large chunk of the broadcast megaphone.

The FCC cannot simply take licenses from large companies and reassign them to minorities and women. But it is well known that many of the large companies would love to prune their portfolios. Should the FCC use what mechanisms it can to actually make it easier to sell to local or socially-disadvantaged owners? Or should the FCC stay out of it and let the open marketplace provide the final word on who owns a station license?

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