FCC Changes Afoot?

What do a former president of the Screen Actors Guild, the host of a long-running Harlem public access show, vice presidents at Fox and CBS, and Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell have in common? They’re all concerned about the future of media ownership laws, and were among the several dozen panelists who assembled at Columbia University for an FCC forum presented by Columbia’s law school and organizations including the Writers Guild of America, Media Access Project, and AIVF.

The forum also attracted three of the four other FCC commissioners, about two hundred attendees, and was seen and heard by many more via webcast and broadcast on Pacifica Radio.

Up for discussion were the FCC’s current rules, which prohibit, among other things, one company from owning stations which reach more than thirty-five percent of the American television audience, as well as mergers among a community’s television stations, radio stations, and local newspapers. This spring, as part of their biennial review, the FCC is expected to vote on whether these rules should be revised, repealed, or left in place.

Other forums for public discussion of FCC regulations are scheduled for this spring . These forums are largely the work of Commissioner Michael J. Copps (who was also present on January 16). In a recent FCC press release, he expressed his belief that these forums fell within the commission’s “responsibility to reach out.”

Support from Powell for these forums has been mixed: “I would be the first to agree that this kind of public discourse is one of the most critical things that the commission can participate in,” he said at the forum on January 16, though he later admitted he finds the FCC’s biennial review process “regrettable,” adding: “I think it’s destabilizing to necessarily look at rules at such intervals.” Powell also issued a press release on February 5 which questioned these forums’ effectiveness, comparing them to “a nineteenth century whistle stop tour.”

“Whistle stop” or not, the Columbia University forum sparked some emotional debate both for and against deregulating television. The effect of the 1996 Telecommuni-cations Act was frequently cited as an example of how deregulation can fail the public interest. The act contained a provision which freed radio stations from ownership limits similar to those being discussed for broadcast.

The result? Today, two corporations—Clear Channel and Infinity—own nearly every radio station in the country. To many, this was a frightening model of what could happen if television is deregulated. “The deregulation of the radio industry has been an unmitigated disaster,” said Michelle Jennings, executive vice president of Sherwood Outdoor. Jennings, who has worked for twenty-five years in radio management and sales, said, “After deregulation, the competitive landscape altered drastically. Our business contracted, and our ability to grow was drastically diminished. . . . Many media executives and programmers share my view, but are afraid to speak out publicly because their livelihood depends on them holding an opposite view.” She admitted, “Friends and colleagues in the industry have warned me that I may be blackmailed if I speak out against deregulation at this event.”

Some sought to connect media consolidation and deregulation to vulgarity on television. Commissioner Kevin J. Martin asked: “Are network executives more willing to put on questionable programming when they know they won’t see you and your family at the local grocery store tonight, at the big game Saturday, or at church on Sunday?”

Another vein of opposition towards deregulation came from Charles Lewis, founder and executive director of the Center for Public Integrity. “I don’t know how to put this delicately, so I’ll just spit it out,” he said. “There is a general perception that the Federal Communications Commission and Congress have been a little too close and a little too accommodating to the broadcast industry.”

Lewis shared some frightening figures: Media corporations gave $75 million to Congress over the past five years, and spent $111 million lobbying. Furthermore, the same members of Congress who voted for the 1996 Telecommunications Act were treated, courtesy of media corporations, to 315 trips around the world. Even worse, the Center found that between 1995 and 2000, FCC personnel accepted 1,460 “all-expense-paid” trips, courtesy of media corporations and associations. “How can the FCC judge or discuss media ownership if they’re taking trips on these guys?” said Lewis. “Call me crazy, but I have a problem with that.”

Tom Carpenter, national broadcast director of AFTRA, expressed concern over the future of local news coverage in a deregulated world. Carpenter cited the rise of voice tracking employed by Clear Channel, or “live” radio that is actually prerecorded for a specific market, as one of the negative and inevitable consequences of deregulation. “The announcers who do these voice track shifts have cheat sheets, with local community names and places,” he said. “They are required to pretend, in fact, that they are living and working in the communities where they are broadcasting, but they’re not.”

Carpenter believes that if deregulated, television would follow suit. “I hate to say it, but it’s already starting to happen,” he said, noting how Sinclair (a large owner of television stations) now tapes its weather forecasts for Dayton, Ohio, in its Baltimore, Maryland, corporate offices.

Though outnumbered at the forum, proponents of deregulation argued for the advantages of looser ownership laws. “In a way, it should be flattering to my male ego that so many people have been up here today talking about how powerful we are, and how good we are at executing conspiracies,” said Martin D. Franks, executive vice president of CBS television. “Folks, we’re not that good . . . there isn’t this big media conspiracy out there to subvert the underlying values of America.”

Franks also said that a different climate required different laws. “Somehow the notion that the media landscape bears any resemblance today to what it looked like five years ago, or six years ago, much less sixty years ago, when many of these regulations were first written, is mind-boggling to me,” he said.

“Free television is much more endangered than I’ve heard articulated in this room,” he added. “Two of the networks—NBC and CBS—will make money this year. The other two are going to lose a ton. One of the reasons is all the programming investment is made at the network level. Much of the recoupment of that is made at the station level. If we aren’t able to own more stations, and therefore recoup more programming investment, our programming investment will decline. When our programming investment declines—as it has at NBC in the sports arena—more and more sports goes to pay [per view]. . . . That’s not anti-American, but it’s not ultimately in the public’s interest.”

Ultimately, though, it’s difficult to predict precisely what might happen should television become deregulated. Perhaps Lewis put it best: “[Have] the FCC commissioners given adequate explanation to the public about why giving billions more dollars [in the form of income from public airwaves] to the existing broadcast companies is in the national interest? . . . Is the FCC sufficiently objective and independent to render such judgements, given its past history? It is not for me to answer these questions, but to let time and history itself be the ultimate judge.”

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Charlie Sweitzer is a New York-based writer.