Depending on whom you ask, next week could mark the end of consumer choice in the media, or usher in a new era of quality and resources. Or neither.
On Monday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is expected to relax long-standing media-ownership rules, and furor is filling op/ed pages and spurring ad campaigns nationwide.
The debate is one of the sharpest over media policy in years, as corporate interests, keen on modifying "outdated" regulations, confront a public increasingly uncomfortable with consolidation. If, as many observers expect, the rules are loosened to allow for ownership of multiple media outlets in a single market, the industry could be transformed - though the extent of that revolution remains unclear.
"This is not the final battle. This is the first battle," says Robert McChesney, head of Free Press, a group that advocates media diversity. "There will be recourse on a number of different levels," he says. "There's no doubt that members of Congress will come back with media-ownership legislation in the next session."
Driving public concern is the fear that most media outlets could fall into the hands of a few players, limiting diversity of voices and local coverage.
In print and TV ads this week, a coalition of groups portrayed an industry in which a few media moguls - like Rupert Murdoch, the man behind the Fox News Channel and the New York Post - reign supreme. Already, about three-quarters of what Americans see, hear, and read in the media is controlled by a handful of large companies. That, argue critics, is not desirable in a democracy, where independent voices are essential.
Congress and the FCC have received hundreds of thousands of e-mails and letters on the topic. Though the public debate is less than fever pitch, grass-roots meetings attended by various of the FCC's five commissioners have drawn crowds from a few dozen to nearly 1,000. The plan is opposed by both conservative and liberal groups, from the National Rifle Association to the National Organization for Women.
The two Democratic commissioners on the FCC's decision-making board, and members of Congress from both parties, have tried unsuccessfully to persuade Republican FCC chairman Michael Powell, son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, to delay the vote and allow more time to consider the rules. But the meeting is expected to go ahead, as planned, on Monday.
Even some experts who say deregulation will help the media environment aren't convinced that now is the right time, since not all Americans have access to the full range of media options. "Short term, I'm uncomfortable about it, because we haven't yet gotten to the point where I think it is the most appropriate remedy," says Everette Dennis, professor of media management at New York's Fordham University.
On the docket for Monday are several rules, including those that cover bans on ownership of a television station and a newspaper in the same market, owning more than one of the top four TV stations in a market, and a single company owning local stations that reach more than 35 percent of US TV households.
Those in favor of loosening the rules, including Chairman Powell, argue the current restrictions are outdated, having been created in the 1960s and '70s. The way they see it, the rules were meant for an environment with just three broadcast networks, a world in which Web surfing was for Spiderman. Now, their argument goes, people have many options for news and entertainment - diminishing the need to protect a few players.
With more competition, and with the rising production costs, comes the need for large, prosperous companies that can afford to keep up, supporters say.
"If you want to preserve and strengthen free, over-the-air, local television, then you need to extend some modest deregulation in terms of duopolies [single owners owning more than one outlet]," says Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters. Those in favor of the changes argue that if a struggling local news station can use the resources of a cross-owned newspaper, the community benefits. But critics insist that synergy deprives the market of one more independent voice - and deprives outlets of competitive drive.
Public response, albeit limited, is larger than that generated in 1996, say observers, when Congress passed the Federal Communications Act. Among its changes, that law deregulated the radio industry, allowing single owners to buy many stations. Clear Channel Communications, for instance, went from owning fewer than 50 stations to more than 1,200. Protests were planned at Clear Channel stations in major US cities Thursday to object to the current FCC action.
The perceived homogenization of radio is fueling concerns about relaxing ownership rules for TV. Though broadcasters argue that there are now more radio formats to choose from, critics complain of similar content, increased commercialism, and a loss of local flavor. Since 1996, the number of radio-station owners has dropped by roughly a third. That, opponents say, is a harbinger of the weakening of local media if regulations are relaxed.
How quickly and to what extent the landscape will change remains unclear. Because cross-ownership of newspapers and TV stations is already permitted in some markets, many consumers are used to seeing the same reporters on several channels, or plugs on the nightly news for a commonly owned newspaper. Though analysts say media companies will likely be eager to take advantage of looser rules, the sagging economy - and the available outlets - may keep them from moving too fast.
Some media watchers are less troubled that the potential moves represent a doomsday scenario for diversity and democracy. "The FCC is going to move incrementally ... such that you won't see a significant change in the landscape," says Rob Frieden, a telecommunications professor at Pennsylvania State University. He's not opposed to deregulation, arguing that media is no different from other industries forced to do more with less.
"Media industries are not exempt from having to economize, streamline, become more productive," Professor Frieden says. "To a certain extent, a large, deep-pocketed media conglomerate is better able to produce or acquire the high-quality content we expect."
If the rules are relaxed, Dennis sees an opportunity for more accountability and public involvement. "Media can be very responsive to criticism.... We've had a weak tradition of media criticism in the United States, so maybe this will bolster that."