Sometime before, say, Paris Hilton’s retirement party, the FCC will finally free broadcasters from regulations that now limit how much they can own, what they can own and where they can own it. It made a start last week, but the end is not yet in sight.
As it turns out, since the last time the FCC entered this arena just three years ago, the media landscape has changed dramatically. In fact, new rules that would allow broadcasters to own more stations in a market and newspapers alongside them may arrive when few media companies will care to take advantage of the opportunity.
Since 2004, some significant broadcasters have pulled back rather than bank on a waiver and a prayer. NBC is selling some smaller-market stations. Fox is considering that, for more-complicated reasons. Emmis Communications is all but out of the TV business.
Tribune Co. has pushed hard for TV/newspaper crossownership relief. But with its stock lagging and management under assault from the Chandler-family ownership bloc it inherited in acquiring Times Mirror in 2000, the company just sold stations in Albany, N.Y., and Atlanta and may sell more. What’s more, now crossownership doesn’t sound so brilliant.
The real growth area for stations may wind up being the Internet, where they can expand without fear—so far—of FCC intervention.
We know and treasure the value of localism. But broadcasters should not be prevented from getting larger to the extent that the acquisitions don’t violate antitrust laws. We know that most major media companies are mindful of their mission, too; look at how Big Media served the public after Hurricane Katrina. Nobody stops Gannett from buying newspapers, and, in a world of millions of Websites, it’s hard to say the world will ever again suffer from a scarcity of voices.
Indeed, media activists arguing that Big Media controls the information flow become their own worst argument when they mobilize millions via the Web.
In 2004, a Philadelphia federal appeals court remanded the 2003 rules and instructed the FCC to ax or justify them. That overdue process begins again now. We only hope that FCC Chairman Kevin Martin can leverage his clout better than he did on his aborted attempt to grant broadcasters multicast must-carry.
He again faces opposition from media activists and the FCC’s two Democrats, Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, who last time held several town-hall meetings that angered consumers over the “evils” of Big Media. Expect more broadcaster bashing.
But whatever sound and fury attends the rule-review process, when the dust clears, broadcasters ought to be free to create whatever business plans make them relevant in a world that looks nothing like the one that gave birth to media-ownership restrictions in the first place.