February 28, 2003

Bemoaning the Owning

The FCC held its first - and only - public hearing yesterday on proposed changes to its media ownership rules that, if adopted, could result in further consolidation in the entertainment and news industries.

While most of the FCC rules regulate broadcast companies [see this guide to media ownership rules under review] newspapers are affected because the FCC restricts media companies from owning a newspaper and a TV station in the same market (some cross-ownership was grandfathered in when the ban took effect in 1975).

For example, when the Hearst Corporation bought the San Francisco Chronicle in 1999, FCC restrictions prevented it from buying KRON-TV, the then-NBC affiliate in San Francisco, which was also for sale by the Chronicle company. KRON was later sold to Young Broadcasting of New York and lost its network affiliation.

As I've said here several times [read Competition and Mediocrity or Is Big Media Really Bad News?], I'm not convinced that consolidation of ownership will result in a reduction of journalistic quality. Certainly, to use the inverse in support of my negative, the proliferation of cable news and entertainment programming hasn't resulted in an increase of quality. (Can broadcast news get worse than it is? Can newspapers become more inert?)

Whenever possible, I favor competition, which I think breeds innovation, something newspapers desperately need these days. But, the information technology revolution of the last two decades has altered the nature of media competition. The playing ground is more level, granting newer, technology-enabled voices access to wide audiences.

The news media race of the future belongs to the quick and the nimble. The irony is that should the FCC loosen ownership restrictions, Big Media may discover that being bigger, and therefore more cumbersome (let's all say AOL Time Warner), is not necessarily better for business in a world that values change more than constancy.

Here is a sampling of reporting from and commentary on the FCC hearing:

 Washington Post: "Still, much of the debate over media ownership revolves around goals that sound laudable but are short on specifics. Is it competition when eight of Washington's major radio stations are owned by Clear Channel?"

 Los Angeles Times: "Powell (FCC Chairman Michael) warned the audience against turning to the government to determine what should be aired. He noted that often the TV shows attacked as low-quality earn the highest ratings. 'Half of what we're railing about is what people choose' to watch, Powell said."

 Ad Age: "Media consolidation is producing 'raw sewage' TV content, a consumer spokesman charged. A network executive, however, said that curbs on consolidation were what was really hurting TV content."

Thanks for the links to Journalism.org, which through the Project for Excellence in Journalism maintains an extensive, although generally anti-consolidation, list of resources on the issue.

Posted by Tim Porter at February 28, 2003 09:20 AM