Tuesday, December 18, 2007

FCC Relaxes Media Ownership Rules...

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was created over 70 years ago to make sure that the media served "the public interest, convenience, or necessity". Of course, this can be, and has been, interpreted in a lot of ways, yet certain rules remained fairly consistent over the decades. So is today's decision to drastically change the rules governing media ownership an acknowledgement that the internet has fundamentally altered the media landscape, or is it simply a case of the government caving in to corporate lobbyists?

Briefly, the two major rule changes are that 1) no cable television company will be allowed to control more than 30% of the market, and 2) companies can now own both a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same city.

Here's what's at the heart of this issue: the concentration of ownership. Nearly everyone agrees that in a functioning democracy a free media must exist to express a diversity of viewpoints. Hence, the FCC has always limited how much of a media market one company may control, figuring that having several different media companies available to choose from will offer the public a wider range of opinions.

This principle of limiting the concentration of ownership is clearly evident in the first rule change that ensures that no cable company may control more than 30% of the market. But here's where the politics creep in. The 30% rule really only applies to the nation's largest cable company - Comcast - which analysts cite is right about at that threshold. You can thank the fearless lobbying efforts of cable's main rival, the telecommunications industry, for that one.

Concentration of ownership is also clearly at the heart of the second rule change. For 32 years, companies could not own both a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same city - again, to ensure that the public is exposed to many different points of view. However, what's interesting is that, in loosening this restriction, the motivation could be one of two things. Some people are arguing that it's a case of the FCC caving to the evil lobbying efforts of the media conglomerates who now want to buy out your local town paper. Others argue that this is totally justified because the internet now provides infinitely diverse points of view, therefore the media landscape has fundamentally changed and the old rules should no longer apply.

These are the same arguments that get made over whether to let the two satellite radio stations - XM and Sirius - merge into one.

The truth is that both sides of the debate have reasonable positions, and should not be casually shrugged off in the name of partisan ideology. That said, while the internet may indeed decentralize "media" and the content available to the public, the bottom line is that, legally, the public owns the airwaves, and thus the public's agent, government acting on its behalf, ought to continue ensuring that the media serves "the public interest", regardless of what other content or services exist out there.

For that reason, let's applaud the first rule change, and be highly skeptical of the second.


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