The Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, has voted to relax the rules that govern who owns broadcast television and radio stations and how many any one company can possess. The vote was approved along party lines, with 3 Republicans voting for and 2 Democrats against.
The changes now make it possible for individual companies to own both newspapers and television stations in the same city. It also allows individual companies to own more television stations; for example, as many as three in the largest US cities.
The former restrictions where designed decades ago to encourage competition and a variety of viewpoints. FCC Chairman Michael Powell, son of US Secretary of State Colin Powell, says the media environment today is vastly different with thousands of new independent voices on cable television and the Internet. "We have embraced a challenge unparalleled in the FCC's history. We collected a thorough record, analyzed our broadcast ownership rules from ground up, and wrote rules that matched the times."
Chairman Powell admits the move was not popular but insists the new rules will improve competition and diversity in the media industry.
Media companies say the changes were needed because the old restrictions hindered their ability to grow and compete in a market now including cable TV, satellite broadcasts and the Internet.
By owning numerous media outlets in one city, companies say they will be better able to provide local news through more integrated operations.
Critics of the ruling include consumer advocates, civil rights groups, many Democrats and even some Republican members of congress. They are concerned that expanded media ownership could reduce the diversity of viewpoints needed in a democracy.
CNN founder Ted Turner writes in The Washington Post recently that the move would "stifle debate, inhibit new ideas and shut out smaller businesses trying to compete. He adds that changes would have hindered the creation of Turner Broadcasting and CNN."
Jeff Chester, Executive Director of the Center for Digital Democracy in Washington, charges that if television and newspapers are combined under the same ownership, this will limit dissenting viewpoints. "Media consolidation deprives the public of the critical watchdog function that the press is supposed to have. As these companies become larger, less accountable and more involved in other kind of businesses, there is simply an unwillingness to cast light on its own activities. If you only have a handful of companies choking off the pipeline into the homes of the citizens, then, diverse and dissenting voices get marginalized. What this decision essentially does is marginalize dissenting, alternative and competing perspectives." Mr. Chester points out that a few companies already control much of the media. More than 75 percent of all US television networks are owned by only six corporations.
But David Demers, Associate Professor of Communications at Washington State University, argues that the threat to democracy is overblown. He says large companies provide economy of scale to collect information and ultimately provide a wide range of programming. "I know that a lot of people are concerned that these mergers lead to less diversity of opinion. I as a scholar don't necessarily feel that way. What my research in newspapers for over a decade during the 1990s shows is that large-scale corporations produce a more diverse product -- a product that has more diversity in the amount of content, and also the amount of content that's critical of dominant institutions and elite groups. And all of that produces a very robust discussion in the marketplace of ideas."
Professor Demers does not believe this latest de-regulation will lead to significant mergers or less variety. He notes that a century from now, historians will look back, not at the FCC ruling, but at the Internet revolution that challenged mainstream media. "I am one of a few who is arguing that diversity of ideas, when you look at the system as a whole, is dramatically beyond anything we could imagine, in large part because of the Internet. It gives anyone a voice in the system, whereas before we had limited access to media outlets. A lot of social movements of today relay on the Internet to achieve their goals, where in the past they had to relay heavily on mass media and the mass media marginalized many of those protest groups."
But Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy says the trend to media consolidation is also affecting access to the Internet. Last year, a FCC ruling essentially handed over control of broadband or high-speed Internet to a small number of corporations involved in cable television.
Most Americans get high-speed access to the Internet through cable. Mr. Chester says even if thousands or millions of web sites are available, diversity is a mere illusion if only a handful of cable companies own high-speed access to those sites. "If you could be assured that cable and the Internet could be more open mediums, I would be less concerned with what the FCC just did. But in fact, in the US today, you have significant concentration of control in cable - two companies control almost half of all subscribers. The FCC has already decided to allow cable companies to have much more control over how the Internet architecture evolves. So instead of today's Internet, which is principally an open, non-discriminatory network, because of recent US policies, the Internet may soon follow the same fate as some of our other concentrated media under the control of a few giant companies."
Some critics warn that monolithic media companies can also manipulate public opinion. In 1996, after the US government removed limits on the number of radio stations one company can own, Texas-based Clear Channel bought over a thousand radio stations and now owns more than 10 percent of all US radio stations.
After a singer from the country band Dixie Chicks said she was ashamed to be from the same state as President Bush, Clear Channel stopped playing the group's songs. Professor Demers of Washington State University concedes that this kind of censorship can happen, but he says it is rare.
Some lawmakers from both parties, including Republican Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, have introduced legislation to override the FCC ruling. Yet others applaud the measure. Republican Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee Billy Tauzin of Louisiana said the FCC has helped remove the regulatory muzzle from American broadcasters. Many analysts agree the debate is far from over.