Remote Control

For the past 28 years, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has used its authority over the broadcast spectrum to prohibit television stations from owning a newspaper in the same city. Congress didn't want a single owner to dominate what citizens in a given community can view, hear, or read in those two media.

The FCC also forced TV networks to limit the number of local outlets they own, on the theory that independent local stations better serve local needs.

Such government control of broadcast media may have been warranted when three networks dominated TV screens and a smaller number of radio stations beamed almost-identical programming. But those days are long gone. According to the Nielsen ratings, TV viewers now tune to cable more often than to the broadcast networks. In the 2001-2002 season, for instance, Americans spent an average of 26.5 hours per week watching cable - compared to 24.4 hours for all the network affiliates combined.

Acknowledging that consumers have far more choices these days, from satellite broadcasting to cable TV to the Internet, Congress in 1996 required the FCC to strictly justify its ownership regulations or amend them.

So, Monday, the FCC is expected to relax the rules. Under the proposals, a company could own TV stations reaching up to 45 percent of the national audience (up from 35 percent). In big cities, the owner of two TV stations could buy a third. A television station in a large city could own a newspaper and a radio station.

Opponents of the changes - on the left and right - say they will lead to further concentration of media control by a few powerful companies - companies they view as more interested in profits than in serving the community with good programming.

But there's little evidence to suggest that ownership concentration by itself hurts programming quality or local news, which is generally mediocre regardless of who owns the station. The idea that locally owned stations provide better local programming and news coverage doesn't play out in real life. And the suggestion in the lead Opinion piece in today's Monitor that the FCC should study local news content raises the disturbing possibility of government interference in news coverage.

By and large, corporations that own media keep their political positions separate from their media content - sometimes more so than local owners. They want to appeal to the widest possible audience, programming different stations for different interests, political and artistic. Such a business strategy attracts more viewers to the range of a company's stations, generating more ad revenue.

That market imperative can ensure diversity of views. An example is Infinity Broadcasting, which owned two radio stations in New York City in 1998. Each endorsed a different candidate for mayor that year.

If it adopts the new rules, the FCC should implement them prudently, using a market-by-market approach. But the media cannot be isolated from normal market forces, or the audience will turn elsewhere. The criteria for judgment must be access to varying points of view - not merely the identity or personality of owners.

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