U.S. media corporations and public interest groups are debating the future of the broadcast industry, as the Bush administration urges changes in the rules for media ownership. Free-market advocates want less government oversight, while critics fear that a handful of media giants will tighten their hold on broadcasting.
Both sides anticipate far-reaching changes when the five commissioners of the Federal Communications Commission meet in early June. The board oversees U.S. broadcasting and its chairman, Michael Powell, is a champion of deregulation. He wants a vote by June 2 on a set of proposals, as yet unwritten, to loosen rules designed to keep a few media companies from dominating the airwaves.
Those rules ensure a diversity of voices on radio and television, say those who support strong government oversight.
The airwaves are owned by the public, not by private industry, insists Marty Kaplan, associate dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. The university hosted a recent public forum on the proposed rule changes.
"It used to be that there was an active enforcement, through license procedures and other regulation, of things like localism and diversity, so that people could be ensured a wide variety of information and entertainment," says Mr. Kaplan. "And that was in exchange for the public giving to the entertainment and news industry, for free, the licenses. Well, they still get those licenses for free, but now they have no obligations to fulfill. They simply do what they want to do."
Those who want less government regulation say market forces and new technologies provide a diversity of voices on the airwaves. They complain that broadcasters are subject to complex and often inconsistent rules, which limit the number of media outlets a company can own in a local market.
The rules also ban simultaneous ownership of a newspaper and broadcast station in a single location, and prohibit a media company from reaching more than 35-percent of the national television audience.
Critics say the rules are outdated in a world with a multiplicity of outlets on cable, satellite, and the internet.
Mark Pedowitz of ABC entertainment, part of the Disney Company, says in the 1970s, there were only three major networks. Today, there are more than 300. "Sci Fi channel, Lifetime, HBO, TNT, Showtime, A&E, FX, Hallmark, Bravo," he says.
True, there is more diversity on television today, with a major caveat, says Jerry Isenberg. A former independent producer, he now teaches at the USC school of cinema. "All these outlets are owned by the same six companies. I would say 90- to 95-percent of what is seen on television is owned by the same six companies," he says. "There may be a lot of companies, but it is all Viacom or Disney or whatever."
In addition to Viacom and Disney, the other media giants are AOL Time Warner, Fox, and GE. They own broadcast and cable networks and production studios. On radio, the Clear Channel company owns 1,200 stations.
The growth of these six companies was made possible by a loosening of restrictions on media ownership that date from the 1930s. The giants want more deregulation, but not everyone in the industry agrees.
"I think that it is quite telling that a representative from Universal Television is here today as spokesperson for the "little guy," says David Kissinger is president of Universal Television Productions. "I think that tells you about as much about media consolidation as anything."
He says his company, part of the Universal Pictures empire, is not a big player in the broadcast industry, but primarily sells its programs to stations and networks. He says he has seen creativity stifled as the number of independent producers shrinks, and the industry becomes dominated by a few conglomerates which make and distribute their own entertainment products.
Some independent forums on the subject, like this one at USC, get passionate. Critics of FCC chairman Michael Powell smell an industry conspiracy in the lack of media coverage of the issue.
The media giants, they suggest, avoid discussing the proposed rule changes in the hope that they will be approved unnoticed. The two Democrats on the commission are publicizing the issue in a series of forums like this one, hoping to build political pressure against their Republican chairman.
John Connolly, national president of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, sees media consolidation as dangerous for industry workers. His union represents performers, broadcast journalists and musicians. He says, increasingly, they work for a few big companies. "When cable television, for instance, became a serious threat to market share of the big broadcast networks, they responded by buying their competition," he says. "So now you have Viacom, which owns three, four, or five cable networks as well as [the] UPN and CBS [networks] and Paramount pictures. So what happens is you have these huge vertically integrated corporations, and almost inevitably, there is gradual grinding pressure from the corporate agenda." He says that means an understandable focus on profits.
But there can also be greater efficiency with consolidation, says Christopher Yoo, who teaches communications law at Vanderbilt University. He says jointly owned stations can share staff and, sometimes, provide more diversity in their programs than they could individually.
He says even the courts have said the current rules are contradictory and need to be reexamined. But the Democrats on the communications commission say they need more time to air the issues on questions of media access, which commissioner Michael Copps says go to the very heart of democracy.