The Deed is Done: FCC Lifts Most Media Ownership Restrictions

It took only 90 minutes for the debate; calling the question took less than 15 seconds. And, as expected, the FCC voted along party lines (3-2) to significantly relax the rules restricting media ownership and consolidation, eliminating several of them completely. The agency’s news releases are full of sickening spin, but it does provide a decent overview of the new rules.
The biggest bonanzas appear to affect television ownership, where caps have been greatly relaxed, and cross-ownership of media outlets in all but a few large markets is now permitted. Mediageek’s Paul Riismandel has posted a more specific analysis of the changes to radio ownership rules.
Clear Channel might be stung by these changes but its freshly-endowed freedom to gobble up television stations and newspapers should more than compensate. The Big Ten must be having a collective orgasm over how much their empires will grow as a result of what happened today. Time to begin paying close attention to business news.
At the links below you can download complete, unedited MP3 files of the statements made by FCC Commissioners and staff during the meeting, along with a bit of context for those who missed the RealVideo webcast of the event. The FCC’s archived stream also includes the press conference that followed. Further fleshing out of this story will continue later today, so check back for more info.
Media Bureau Chief W. Kenneth Ferree (2:59, 705K)
For some reason, Ken Ferree always brings props to these meetings when big media issues are on the docket. For the adoption of a digital radio standard last year he brought with him a copy of the Communications Act of 1934, the legislation that created the FCC. For this circus he brought with him a pair of old TV rabbit ears to signify how the digital media has revolutionized choice for American consumers. I’m sure it will play well in the mainstream media, but does he really think we’re that dumb to fall for his show-and-tell?
Notable quote: “The poet James Russell Lowell cautioned us not to attempt the future’s portal with the past’s blood-rusted key. Our rules are about as rusty as they can be…The item before you includes proposed rules that will provide a shiny new key for the digital future.”
Chairman Michael Powell (5:03, 1.2 MB)
Powell stuck to the company line – that rules on media ownership had to be reduced or eliminated due to Congressional and court mandates. It’s as if the record 500,000+ public comments filed on the issue didn’t exist. For a man for whom the marketplace is a religion, we can now only hope that when he does get a visit from the Angels of the Public Interest, it will be with an eye on vengeance for his sins.
Notable quotes: “I have heard the concerns expressed by the public about excessive consolidation. Though such generalized worries do not clearly suggest specific answers to the specific issues the Commission must address, they have introduced a note of caution in the choices we have made.”
“Leaving things unaltered, regardless of any change in the competitive landscape, is a course that only Congress can legitimately chart.”
Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy (9:14, 2.2 MB)
Abernathy, who has long been a disciple of Powell, played the role of hatchet woman in this rulemaking. She actually had the gall to invoke the First Amendment as her guiding light in wholeheartedly approving this travesty, and she flatly insulted anyone who opposed her definition of “progress.”
Notable quotes: “The First Amendment to the Constitution protects the rights of free speech and free press and tells me that in my capacity as an FCC Commissioner I cannot tell the American people what they should believe, what they should read, what they should watch or listen to, or what they should do in the area of their own home when it comes to media. Any restraint placed on broadcasters’ free speech rights must be a reasonable means to further our public interest goals. The federal court opinions specifically tell me that any restrictions we place on ownership must be based on concrete evidence – not on fear and speculation about hypothetical media monopolies intent on exercising some sort of Vulcan mind control on the American people.”
“Those opposing today’s order have also emphasized that four companies air programming that is chosen by approximately 75% of viewers during prime time. To me, the critical fact is that these providers control no more than 25% of the broadcast channels in the average home even apart from the Internet and other pipelines. Given these other viewing options I can only presume that this means that Americans are watching these providers because they prefer their content, not because they lack alternatives. It would be anathema to the First Amendment to regulate media ownership in an effort to steer consumers towards other programming, and by the same token concerns about the degradation of broadcast content do not justify government manipulation of consumer choice. Degradation is just an elitist way of saying programming that one does not like.”
“For me, given the rules we adopt today, the breakneck pace of technological development, and the ever-increasing number of pipelines into consumers’ homes, it is simply not possible to monopolize the flow of information in today’s world. Indeed, the fall of Communism in the 1980s and of military dictatorships in the 1990s demonstrates that diverse viewpoints cannot be suppressed even by authoritarian governments, much less by private media companies.”
Commissioner Michael Copps (19:19, 4.5 MB)
The most eloquent of the two dissenters, Copps deplored the “Clear Channelization” that would happen to America’s media environment and was the most forceful in his prediction of a public backlash. If you only download one of these MP3s, his would be the one to check out.
Notable quotes: “Radio deregulation gives us powerful and relevant lessons. When Congress and the Commission removed radio concentration protections we experienced massive and largely unforeseen consequences. We saw a 34% reduction in the number of radio station owners. Diversity of programs suffered. Homogenized music and standardized programming crowded out local and regional talent. Creative local artists found it ever more difficult to obtain play time. Editorial opinion polarized. Competition in many towns became non-existent as a few companies bought up every station in the market. This experience ought to terrify us as we consider visiting upon television and newspapers what we have inflicted upon radio. Clear Channelization of the rest of the American media will harm our country.”
“There are other things that this order could have done. Commenters address the need to require more independent programming on our airwaves so that a few conglomerates do not act anti-competitively to control all of the creative entertainment that we see. These proposals should have received the serious attention they deserve in this decision.”
“This Commission’s drive to loosen the rules and its reluctance to share its proposals with the people before we voted awoke a sleeping giant. American citizens are standing up in never-before-seen numbers to reclaim their airwaves and to call on those who are entrusted to use them to serve the public interest…The media concentration debate will never be the same. The obscurity of this issue that many had relied upon in the past, where only a few dozen inside-the-Beltway lobbyists understood the issue is gone forever. I believe, after traveling almost the length and breadth of this land, that our citizens want, deserve, and demand a renewed discussion of how their airwaves are being used, and how to ensure that they are being used to serve the public interest. I urge my colleagues to heed their call.”
Commissioner Kevin Martin (3:32, 832K)
Long expected to be a swing vote that might partially modify or reject some of the ownership rule changes, Martin instead rolled over and kept the Republican majority and its agenda of further media consolidation intact. Using his North Carolina childhood home as a rhetorical springboard, Martin’s statement was no more than a parroting of Michael Powell’s.
Notable quote: “The existing media ownership rules were adopted to promote three principles: competition, localism and diversity. Since that time the media marketplace has changed significantly. Yet what has not changed is the importance of these core values. Fundamentally our rules must still promote competition, localism, and diversity to nourish a vibrant media marketplace.”
Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein (27:37, 6.4 MB)
The longest-winded by far, Adelstein railed on the Commission’s ignorance of its obligation to listen to the public and work in its best interests. He stopped just short of framing the issue in a way that remains mostly taboo in D.C.: that this issue is part of a larger battle over corporate control of democracy itself. He also attacked several specifics of the FCC’s overhaul; his written statement dissects the damage even more deeply.
Notable quotes: “This is a sad day for me and I think for the country. It may be sunny outside but I’m afraid a dark storm cloud is now looming over the future of the American media. This is the most sweeping and destructive rollback of consumer protections in the history of American broadcasting.”
“As big media companies get bigger they’re likely to broadcast even more homogenized programming that increasingly appeals to the lowest common denominator. ‘Tis the toaster with pictures; soon, only Wonder Bread will pop out.”
“In its rigid insistence on fixed rules and oftentimes arbitrary numbers, the order ignores our statutory obligation to serve the public interest, convenience and necessity in favor of the convenience of those who seek to maximize the money they can extract from the private sale of the public airwaves.”
“Now some argue that the threat to American democracy is overblown since it’s so strong and resilient. Our democracy is strong – it’s not about to crumble – does it mean we can afford to weaken it? Doesn’t it matter that only half our citizens vote? Does the way the media works today have anything to do with that?”
“Today’s bottom line is spelling an open season on consolidation. In place of our once-powerful cross-media limits only 2.3% of the American population will now receive full protection that they will have diverse sources. In contrast, the markets for all remaining cross-media protections have been entirely lifted represents 72.5% of the population. While I agree that some consolidation may be warranted in the very top markets, the the leap from protecting 100% of the population with full protections to less than 3% is pretty dramatic.”
“Looking back on how we got here, I’m convinced that there’s little else I could have done to change the outcome.”