Big TV networks get bigger: Is that good or bad?

r FCC voted yesterday to loosen the rules that prevented networks from owning one another.

If you have a hard time keeping track of just who owns what in the media world, brace yourself. The communications industry, already a labyrinth of partnerships and ownerships, is soon likely to get a bit more complicated.

At its monthly meeting yesterday, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) voted to loosen the so called "dual-network rule" that prevents one television network from owning another. The move paves the way for large networks, like CBS and NBC, to purchase large parts of their smaller siblings, such at the WB and UPN networks.

The rule change is the first in what looks to be a series of moves that will relax decades-old controls on media ownership, covering everything from radio stations to newspapers. Up next on the FCC agenda may be the 26-year-old rule that prevents a company from owning a TV station and newspaper in the same market.

The moves are needed, the FCC says, because the regulations are relics of a less complicated media environment that simply no longer exists. And while Thursday's move was limited in scope, there is clearly momentum on the commission for larger changes. "My only regret is we aren't doing more," said Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth. "I look forward to the day the commission repeals the remaining portion of the ownership rules."

Critics, however, charge that such moves limit diversity in the media. The effects, in particular a shrinking of available news outlets for the public, threaten a linchpin of democracy. In essence, both sides see an altered media landscape, but disagree on how it's affecting the flow of news and information and on what should be done.

Roots of change

The rule changes are rooted in the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which directs the FCC to evaluate its ownership rules every two years. Though these changes are occurring on the watch of President George W. Bush, they have their roots in the Clinton Administration. It was Mr. Clinton's FCC Chairman, William Kennard, who last year pushed to loosen the dual-network rule. He said he saw "powerful arguments" for changing the rules to allow "common ownership of an emerging and an established network."

In an age of growing media empires, from Disney to AOL, changing the rules is designed to help communications giants achieve economies of scale - to help them hold on to their current holdings and grow. The real winner on Thursday, for example, was Viacom, which owns broadcast giant CBS and relative newcomer UPN.

Some analysts do see potential pluses in allowing more media concentration and cross ownership. "You can argue that one company owning multiple news outlets could lead to creating a single news operation that is a sort of super news operation, with the resources to cover the news better," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

He adds that allowing companies to own TV outlets and newspapers in the same town could make both news operations better. Mergers combined with the current FCC rules have created "national media chains that have no connection to the communities they cover," he says. "If you change that you could get a new kind of company that is more involved in the community. The values of print - depth, community interest ... - could spread into local news."

But, he says, there are also dangers, such as ending up with only one or two news organizations that dominate and use their competitive advantage to ignore the public interest.

But what about the Internet

In theory, one reason the FCC is beginning to loosen its rules is that in the new media environment cable and the Internet provide diverse sources of information, which help keep the mainstream media honest. But critics see flaws in that argument. "Media is determined not by who can speak, but by audience, and the audience is all with the mainstream big media," says Jon Katz, a media critic who writes for the website Slashdot.org.

"The FCC is basically saying that because Joe Blow in Montana can go on the web, we don't care how much Disney owns," he says. "That's ridiculous."

In some ways, figures support Mr. Katz's argument. A poll last year showed that 44 percent of American voters used the Internet to get campaign news. But once online, they went to old media sources to retrieve it: Fully 74 percent got their news from a commercial online service or a major media organization. Though online services like AOL have their own news sites, most is recycled wire copy.

"It is a central tenet of democracy that large numbers of people get exposed to different ideas," Katz says. "The truth is, big media companies don't take chances, because they're terrified of offending people."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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