The world did not end last Monday despite the dire predictions of those who insist on stringent rules to level every playing field in the media arena. In fact, the decision by the FCC to relax the rules on media ownership will undoubtedly effect a new and far more open era of modern communications than at any time in history.
Nonetheless, it is likely that a doomsday watch will now begin. And its tone has been set by a curious amalgam of naysayers, ranging from consumer groups to trade associations to self-appointed social hucksters and to a few communications' billionaires. Each has weighed in already with warnings regarding "the sweeping and destructive rollback of consumer protections" and the "transcendent nationwide concept of consumer needs and expectations."
But the warnings border on hysteria and are misdirected. For one thing, the FCC mandate is to promote competition among the media and provide an environment in which diversity and localism can flourish. FCC Chairman Michael Powell and at least two of his colleagues have met that mandate clearly and forcefully.
For my part, I believe it is time to go forward and, at the very least, give the marketplace a chance.
The notion predicated by some critics that "public convenience" should have been the primary consideration throughout the FCC deliberations begs the fact that not just the United States but rather the entire globe is still reeling from an expansion of information. More important, the deluge of information has thus far easily overwhelmed the capacity of consumers to catalogue and digest even a fraction of the content.
Instead, the media have tried to get a reasonable handle on content in order to provide consumers with choices across the entire communications spectrum. To be sure, the media have not been so universally successful in meeting the expectations of every individual or group. But they have demonstrated a clear and definable willingness to respond to market demands. Such is the roadmap—now greatly improved—provided by the FCC new regulations.
And that is precisely where diversity and localism should come from. Neither is a privilege protected by law. Neither is a bedrock inalienable right expressed in our Constitution. Rather, it is up to consumers to make known what they expect television, radio and the print media to provide, and to demonstrate a willingness to support those media outlets that respond to their demands.
If individuals or groups who feel underrepresented fail to act on this simple marketplace mechanism, then it is unlikely that they will be satisfied with whatever programming or information is offered by the media. Yet this will not be the result of greater concentration of media ownership. On the contrary, it will indicate nothing more than the fact that there simply is no credible demand for service.
Granted, the new regulations will create a tremor. But it will not be an echo of Armageddon. Instead, given the tools to compete better in the fluid media universe of today, that tremor will—or should be—the rising chorus of consumers demanding diversity and local content. And, given the new regulations, media players will have little choice but to heed this chorus.