Consolidation and Obligation

Gues Commentary

All of us own the airwaves, and corporations are given the privilege of using them in exchange for their commitment to serve the public interest. Broadcasters have been given very special privileges, and they have very special responsibilities to serve their local communities.

Yet studies present an increasingly bleak picture. Look at the political coverage we are supposed
to be getting. In this election year, when so many important issues confront our nation, the media is just not doing enough to enhance our political dialogue. From the 1996 presidential race to the one in 2000, coverage of the presidential race on network evening news dropped by one-third. The average sound bite by a presidential candidate was down to 8-9 seconds.

When you look at Congressional and local races, the situation is downright dismal. In 2002, over half of the evening local newscasts contained no campaign coverage at all. Some estimate that many Americans likely saw more prime time entertainment on a single night than election coverage during the entire campaign!

What coverage we get focuses on handicapping the horse race rather than on issues we need to be discussing.

We see less public-affairs programming. One survey found less than one-half of one percent of programming is devoted to local public affairs. We see fewer hours of programming for families and children. Independently produced programs are fewer each year.

If the majority of Americans are not getting what they should out of today's media, minority groups are faring worse. Their issues don't rise to the level of serious coverage. When they appear in programming, it's too often as caricature. They are often ignored in the advertising that is selected. I believe that diversity of viewpoint diminishes as diversity of ownership and management diminishes.

People of color constitute over 30% of America but own only 4.2% of the nation's radio stations and around 1.5% of TV stations. The numbers of minorities have dropped across the board—owners, general managers, news directors and the news workforce. That's just not acceptable. America's strength is
its diversity. Our media have a responsibility to reflect and nourish this diversity.

If we do nothing, media consolidation will triumph. But it doesn't have to be that way. I believe we now have the opportunity—perhaps the best in many years—to do something about media consolidation and to make sure the people's airwaves serve the people's interest.

As we make the digital transition, we must update our rules on the public-interest obligations of those who are given the right to use spectrum, particularly those who will multicast additional program streams. The potential of digital television and radio is enormous, and I believe the rewards, for everyone, can be enormous, too. Digital, done rightly, can be a boon to localism and diversity.

All this is worth fighting for because it means airwaves of, by and for the people.