Tuesday, December 18, 2007

FCC & Cross-Ownership: The Votes Are In

Today, the Federal Communications Commission moved to lift the 32 year-old ban on common ownership of newspapers and broadcast outlets in the country's 20 largest cities. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin provoked the ire of more than a few citizens and public interest groups by arranging for what many (including some members of Congress) have deemed as a rush to a vote.

The changes aren't as sweeping as those proposed in 2003 by Martin's predecessor, Michael Powell. The new rules would allow a newspaper to merge with a TV or radio station only if the publication is not among a city's top four and there are at least eight independent media voices in the market.

But that doesn't mean there isn't opposition to the decision. Take a look at this statement from Free Press, which highlights many of the issues surrounding today's vote.

FMC understands the concerns of our allies about the rule changes. Many groups believe that they leave room for cross-ownership in smaller markets. And it's important to note that there was dissent on the Commission itself. Here's a quote from Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein:

“For many years, the underpinnings of the Commission’s public interest analysis with regard to media have been to promote localism, competition, and diversity. Yet it is clear from the record that this decision undermines all of these goals. . . as a result of newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership, there is less local news in the market as a whole and there is less competition for stories and ideas since two competing entities become one. There is also less diversity, as a voice in the market is lost, and broadcast outlets are taken even further out of reach of women and people of color.”

Commissioner Micheal Copps echoed his associate' sentiments:

“The situation isn’t going to repair itself. Big media is not going to repair it. This Commission is not going to repair it. But the people, their elected representatives, and attentive courts can repair it. Last time the Commission went down this road, the majority heard and felt the outrage of millions of citizens and Congress and then the court. Today’s decision is just as dismissive of good process as that earlier one, just as unconcerned with what the people have said, just as heedless of the advice of our oversight committees and many other Members of Congress, and just as stubborn—perhaps even more stubborn—because this time it knows, or should know, what’s coming. Last time a lot of insiders were surprised by the country’s reaction. This time they should be forewarned.”

It remains to be seen whether or not Congress will move to dismiss these new rules, but considering its 2003 remand of Michael Powell's changes, there is precedent.

But it's not all doom and gloom, particularly on the radio front. FMC is pleased that the line has been held on further radio station ownership consolidation. Currently, a single company can own up to eight stations in a single market, depending on how many other stations are operating in said market. Some were predicting that Martin would move to relax these rules to allow for further concentration of ownership. This would no doubt lead to even greater homogenization of playlists and prevent many artists from being heard on the airwaves. Although we'd love to see a rollback to pre-1996 Telecommunications Act levels, the door to increased consolidation seems, for the time being, to be closed. Check out our 2006 Radio Study to learn more.

The Commission also seems increasingly committed to Low Power FM. On November 27, the FCC moved to prevent groups from owning more than one such station, and clarified rules regarding license transfer. They also placed limits on so-called "translators," which repeat the signals of full power stations and extend the reach of commercial radio. These decisions on LPFM will hopefully lead to more locally-oriented music and news options in our nation's cities. Check out our LPFM factsheet for more info.

Perhaps as important, there have been significant steps towards expanding non-commercial radio. In October, the FCC opened up a licensing window for full-power, non-commercial bandwidth — the opportunity of a generation.

Let's hope these latter developments bring greater access and opportunity for musicians. It’s certainly a step in the right direction.

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