Crunch Time at the FCC

One of the most important votes of 2003 will be cast not in Congress or in voting booths across the country but at the Federal Communications Commission. At stake is how TV, radio, newspapers and the Internet will look in the next generation and beyond. At stake are core values of localism, competition, diversity and maintaining the vitality of America's marketplace of ideas. And at stake is the ability of consumers to enjoy creative, diverse and enriching entertainment.

But most people and most journalists are ignoring this momentous vote. Last year FCC chair Michael Powell announced that the commission would vote this spring on whether to scrap, modify or retain our media concentration protections. These rules currently limit a single corporation from dominating a local TV market; from merging a community's TV stations and newspapers into one voice; from merging two major TV networks; and from controlling more than 35 percent of TV households in the nation. And now we are on the verge of dramatically altering the nation's media landscape without the national debate that this issue merits.

What will happen if these rules disappear or are significantly loosened? We have some history to guide us. The FCC eliminated many of its radio consolidation rules in 1996. This action has already caused real problems, according to numerous media experts. Conglomerates now own hundreds of stations across the country. One company, Clear Channel, owns more than 1,200. Today there are 30 percent fewer radio station owners than there were before the commission abandoned its rules in 1996. Most local radio markets are oligopolies. More and more programming originates outside local stations' studios--far from listeners and their communities.

Media watchers like the Media Access Project, the Center for Digital Democracy and Consumers Union argue that this concentration has led to far less coverage of news and public interest programming and less localism. A study by the Future of Music Coalition strongly suggests that consolidation has led to the homogenization of music. Many observers say that radio now serves more to advertise the products of vertically integrated conglomerates than to inform or entertain Americans with the best and most original programming. In addition, the work of the Parents Television Council shows that offensive and indecent programming has grown more pervasive on radio. As programming decisions are wrested from our local communities and made instead in distant corporate headquarters, our children are exposed to more and more offensive material.

Despite this history, we are now about to decide whether to eliminate the rules that govern the rest of the media world. If all these rules are scrapped or if the FCC seriously weakens them, one company could dominate a region's access to information by controlling its radio stations, television stations, newspaper and cable system. And those who believe the Internet will save us from this fate should realize that the dominant Internet news sources are owned by the same media giants who control radio, TV, newspapers and cable. The fate of cable television and the emerging fate of the Internet should teach us that new technology alone, without rules that protect against its being co-opted by media giants, will not guarantee healthy, independent local media.

Yet the FCC is charging ahead without adequately studying the vast consequences of its actions. It has resisted calls to hold public hearings. Only under pressure did it agree to hold one lone official hearing in Richmond, Virginia. Most Americans don't even know that momentous decisions are about to be made. It is the FCC's responsibility to tell them and to solicit their thoughts. Failure to do so disserves the public interest and makes it appear that the commission is trying to eliminate concentration protections in the dark of night.

But it is also the media's responsibility to bring this story to the public. That hasn't happened yet. Indeed, some very important media enterprises have financial interests riding on the outcome of the ownership proceedings. The very institutions we rely on to be a forum for this debate are the institutions most affected by its outcome. The media are at pains to assure us their newsgathering operations are independent of their corporate interests. Here is an opportunity to test that claim.

Suppose for a moment that the FCC votes to remove or significantly modify the concentration protections. Suppose that turns out to be a mistake. How would we ever put the genie back in the bottle? The answer is that we could not. That's why we need a national dialogue on the issue and better data and analysis. We need this debate in Congress, at the commission, among concerned industries, in the media and all across America. The future of the media, a key part of the infrastructure of democracy, hangs in the balance.

Michael Copps is an FCC commissioner.

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