By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 1, 2007
Even though the media landscape has changed radically since the last time the Federal Communications Commission tried to alter its media-ownership rules, a hearing at the FCC yesterday showed that the debate remains as heated as ever.
A range of social, political and consumer groups that successfully petitioned a federal court to throw out the FCC's 2003 attempt to relax ownership rules is once again fighting to keep limits on how many radio and television stations conglomerates can buy.
The groups testified as the five-member commission works to update its ownership rules to the court's satisfaction, a task it hopes to accomplish soon.
The FCC began its review of the ownership rules 18 months ago, but protesters were energized to appear at yesterday's hearing by recent statements by FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin, who has said he wishes to speed the matter to a conclusion soon.
The issue spurred some street theater outside the FCC building, where a group of about 100 gathered. A squad of activists dressed as cheerleaders donned sweaters reading "FCC" and cheered, "Two, four, six, eight, who do we consolidate?" The group listened to anti-consolidation remarks from Jesse Jackson as well as two FCC commissioners who have worked within the agency to limit media conglomerate growth.
FCC rules govern how many radio and television stations a company can own in a city and how many radio stations a company can own nationally. They also prevent one company from owning both a newspaper and a TV station in the same city, a rule likely to be lifted during the current review. The FCC, however, has no say in how many cable TV channels or newspapers a company can own, or how many Web sites or music companies it can control.
Nevertheless, media ownership has become a sort of all-comers cause for groups concerned about local ownership of media, female and minority ownership, conservative and liberal bias in media coverage, indecency, the lack of local news programming and the portrayal of race and ethnicity in television programming, all of which are made worse -- the groups argue -- by the continued growth of big media companies such as Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., Walt Disney Co. and CBS.
"If the commission truly seeks to enhance localism, it should tighten, not loosen, ownership restrictions," former NPR radio star Bob Edwards said at the hearing. If the FCC relaxes its rules, Edwards said, radio station owners "will adopt a business model that shuts out local news and entertainment in favor of national homogenized programming." Edwards is carried now on XM Satellite Radio.
Broadcast media disagree, arguing that local radio and television news and information are better than ever and that the feared decline of localism under corporate ownership has not occurred.
"Will we ever be able to satisfy all our critics? Not a chance," said Marcellus Alexander, vice president of television at the National Association of Broadcasters. "In fact, the record of these hearings shows we've been accused of everything from causing global warming to the mortgage crisis. As Nell Carter used to say in her show of the same name, 'Gimme a break.' "
During the hearing, FCC Chairman Martin said: "Most broadcasters do a good job of localism, but it has become apparent not all are doing all they should." Martin favors several suggestions to overhaul the ownership rules made by foes of Big Media, such as re-energizing the FCC's plan to license low-power FM radio stations to community groups.
Market changes in the past few years, including the emergence of the Internet as a video source, social-networking groups that serve as news sources, the mobile-device sector, have hurt traditional media.
But local media still matter, said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, which succeeded in overturning the FCC's attempted ownership rules changes in 2004.
"The wonderful new media platforms we now have supplement, but do not supplant, the traditional media, especially at the local level," Schwartzman said after testifying at the hearing. "Over-the-air TV and daily newspapers are still, by far, the most important forces shaping public opinion. Democracy suffers when one company has too much influence over what happens in a community."
But the industry says that market changes have effectively rendered many of the FCC ownership limits moot.
For instance, the limit on how many radio stations one company can own nationally was lifted in 1996, allowing Clear Channel Communications to accumulate more than 1,200 stations and the lion's share of criticism for homogenizing radio.
Since then, Clear Channel has been crippled by diminishing radio listenership. Last year, the company said it would divest its television stations and sell the company to a private-equity firm, which would shear off one-third of the company's stations.
That scenario is the reason media companies are not clamoring for the sort of wide-ranging relaxation of rules that they did four years ago. Only one of the FCC's media ownership regulations under consideration has substantial impact, and much of that is restricted to one company.
This is the 32-year-old "cross-ownership rule," which prohibits one company from owning a newspaper and television station in the same city.
The company that would most benefit from abandoning that prohibition is Tribune Co., which has been allowed to own newspapers and television stations in a handful of cities, thanks to grandfathering and a series of FCC waivers. Tribune is converting to a private company and would like the cross-ownership rule lifted to end the need for waivers. Opponents have lobbied against an FCC renewal of Tribune's exceptions.
The complexity of the current media landscape and broadly directed anger at "the media" by a number of groups was on display yesterday.
Jackson said that the FCC should help strengthen locally owned media, and used as an example the Jena 6 case in Louisiana, which he said has been under-reported by Louisiana media. He credited "YouTubing and MySpacing" with raising awareness of the case. But he did not mention that YouTube is owned by Google, a new-media colossus, and MySpace is owned by the world's second-largest traditional media company, News Corp.
MySpace, the world's largest social-networking site with more than 100 million user profiles, promotes Murdoch's Fox television shows and 20th Century Fox movies, all outside the FCC's purview. Some protesters yesterday carried signs denouncing Big Media emblazoned with a photo of a scowling Murdoch.
Melanie Campbell, executive director of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, linked media ownership to controversial programming. "We don't want consolidation that would allow multiple Imuses on the airwaves," she said, referring to radio star Don Imus, fired in April after broadcasting racist remarks.
The Teamsters were at the FCC rally to support fellow union members who work at newspapers and television stations owned by Tribune, saying they fear job cuts under the company's new ownership structure. A dog wandered around wearing a sign reading "Big Media bites."
Inside, meanwhile, the FCC commissioners took care of other business: They unanimously voted to ban exclusive contracts between cable TV providers and the owners of apartment buildings, condominium complexes and planned subdivisions.
The new rule will allow phone giants AT&T and Verizon to roll out their own television services to buildings and communities that had been subject to such exclusive contracts.
The FCC also decided that consumers will be able to transfer their phone numbers to and from Internet phone providers, an extension of a previous ruling that cellphone customers can take their numbers with them when switching between wireless carriers.
Staff writer Kim Hart contributed to this report.