Obama’s Media Agenda

The presumptive nominee tackles the industry’s pressing issues
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Illinois Sen. Barack Obama has a profound appreciation of the media’s great possibilities. That’s at least part of what earned him the presumptive Democratic nomination for president.

The great battle to get the nomination -- a bruising 13-month struggle against valiant New York Sen. Hillary Clinton -- has ended. The war, against Republican nominee and Arizona Sen. John McCain, has only begun.

And if Obama’s “Yes We Can” mantra leads to “Yes We Did” in a November election victory, he will be setting the tone for communications policy from the bulliest of all media pulpits. And he likely would have a solidly Democratic Congress behind him.

With that in mind, we asked the senator to weigh in on media’s great challenges, issues and limits and go on the record with B&C about his communications agenda.

In e-mailed responses last week to questions submitted to his Capitol Hill office, Obama told us he is committed to working toward a digital-TV transition that is without significant disruption (the switchover would come less than four weeks after his inauguration); said the Federal Communications Commission needs to take merger reviews more seriously; asserted that FCC chairman Kevin Martin, like his predecessor, has tried to “dismantle” rules that protect the public; and gave his thoughts on whether cable content should be regulated or its channels unbundled.

Obama believes the consequence of consolidation has been less diversity, less local news and the parroting of stories across multiple outlets. That, he said, needs to change.

In other words, the media is on notice: The potential new sheriff is in town, and he believes there’s plenty of cleaning up to do.

Q: You signaled that you would put the teeth back into antitrust enforcement. What would that mean for media companies that want to merge?

A: There is a clear need in this country for the reinvigoration of antitrust enforcement. Our competition agencies, the Department of Justice and the FTC [Federal Trade Commission], need to step up review of merger activity and take effective action to stop or restructure those mergers that are likely to harm consumer welfare, while quickly clearing those that do not. Specifically, for media mergers, the Department of Justice and the FTC should closely scrutinize all mergers for their implications for competition and consumer choice. The FCC should more seriously evaluate the impact of proposed mergers on the ability of divergent communities to participate in the national media environment.

Q: Where do you stand on the merger of XM Satellite Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio, the only two satellite-radio companies?

A: I am waiting for final resolution by the regulatory agencies and would want to ensure that the merger does not give the new firm excessive market power or unduly limit the choices consumers have for satellite-radio content.

Q: You have said network neutrality would be a priority in your administration. Why and how would you go about ensuring a neutral Internet while still allowing networks to manage traffic?

A: The Internet is a powerful, democratizing tool. There are very low entry barriers for the delivery of services over the Internet, and public debate is unfettered by either the network owner or any single dominant voice. The neutral nature of the Internet makes that possible, and it is something we should defend. Up to now, legislation has focused on protecting against the discrimination against or in favor of any single voice or legal service. All have made allowances for objective, nondiscriminatory network-management practices.

Q: What prompted you to weigh in on media ownership and diversity at an FCC field hearing in Chicago (http://www.broadcastingcable.com/article/CA6480419.html) last year?

A: I strongly favor diversity of ownership of outlets and protection against the excessive concentration of power in the hands of any one corporation, interest or small group. I strongly believe that all citizens should be able to receive information from the broadest range of sources. I feel that media consolidation during the Bush administration has had the effect of eliminating a lot of the diversity of information sources available to persons who have to rely on more traditional information sources, such as radio and television broadcasts and newspapers.

Q: What ill effects has the country suffered from media consolidation, if any?

A: This country’s media ownership rules that both chairman [Michael] Powell and chairman Martin have wanted to dismantle protect us from excessive media concentration. However, even under current rules, the media market is dominated by a handful of firms. The ill effects of consolidation today and continued consolidation are well-documented -- less diversity of opinion, less local news coverage, replication of the same stories across multiple outlets, and others. We can do better.

Q: You co-sponsored the Dorgan bill to block the FCC’s media-ownership change, which Martin has argued was a moderate compromise that took into account the input of opponents to consolidation. Why block it?

A: Chairmen Martin and Powell both argued that their previous effort to deregulate the media market was moderate, as well. Both the courts and a majority of the Senate disagreed the first time. And a few weeks back, the Senate disagreed with chairman Martin again. While he argues that the rule is no longer in the public interest, the public response has heavily weighed in against him. And common sense tells us that the consolidation of outlets in local markets will lead to fewer opportunities for diverse expression of opinions.

Q: What concerns, if any, do you have over violent or sexual content on TV? Should cable be regulated for content?

A: We have established a precedent that government should act to protect kids in a nonintrusive way on broadcast radio and TV. That does not mean that we need the same rules for other media, but it does require us to respect and remain true to the principle that our kids cannot protect themselves -- parents are their first line of defense, and regulation can make it easier for parents to exercise that responsibility. I am focused on ensuring that parents have the tools to protect their kids from offensive material. I prefer technological solutions to this challenge rather than extending content regulation to cable and satellite. Given modern technology and increasingly sophisticated cable and satellite boxes and services, the market should be able to rise to meet the market demand to protect kids from indecent content. If the market fails to meet that demand, legislative and regulatory action may be necessary -- but it must be crafted carefully and focus not on content censorship, but rather on tools for parents.

Q: Do you support requiring cable operators to sell their channels a la carte? Why or why not?

A: I think the jury is still out on a la carte. Several years ago, chairman Powell had the FCC study the effect on consumers of an a la carte system. That study concluded that on average, rates would go up for consumers because each channel would cost much more even if the consumer took fewer channels than they currently receive. Then during his term, chairman Martin had the FCC conduct a review of that study and reversed the findings. FCC staff said the previous report was wrong to conclude that the average cable household -- which watches about 17 channels -- would likely face a monthly rate increase of up to 30% under a la carte. That 2004 report reasoned that a la carte would drive up cable companies’ costs for equipment, customer service and marketing, and that would almost certainly be passed on to subscribers. But the new report says consumers could receive as many as 20 channels without seeing an increase in bills and blamed the earlier finding on faulty data it obtained from the cable industry. I do not want to discourage diversity of programming on cable systems and fear that a la carte regulation may do that. But given the conflicting FCC reports, I remain open to review and discussion of the concept.

Q: You have complained about the influence of special interests on Washington. What kind of FCC chairman would you appoint, and would you look beyond the traditional lobbyists and lawyers for your pick?

A: I think FCC commissioners must be committed to service, averse to drama and capable of bringing disparate communities together. They must have a combination of technical and political expertise and solid relationships in Congress, with industry and with the public-interest community.

Q: How would communications policy be different under your administration compared to the current president?

A: I think communications policy must be more focused on the public interest, more inclusive of nonindustry voices and analysis, and maximize opportunities for the expression of a diversity of views. These issues go beyond simple economics to involve a set of core principles of an informed and empowered citizenry that need to be recognized in government’s approach to this important segment of our society.

Q: If you become president, you will take office only weeks before the biggest technological change in TV history. How will you prepare for that, and will you put someone on your team in charge of keeping tabs on the progress of that transition?

A: The transition will continue to require public-private cooperation and targeted outreach to seniors and lower-income communities. We have made coupons available for converter boxes, and we need to ensure that the neediest individuals are receiving them.

Estimates vary over the number of analog TV sets and households affected. According to Nielsen Media Research, 13 million households cannot receive digital-television signals, and an additional 6 million households have at least one other television set that would no longer work after the transition. Of particular concern are low-income, elderly, disabled, non-English-speaking and minority populations. Many of these groups tend to rely more on over-the-air television and, as a result, are more likely to be impacted by the digital transition. I am committed to working with the Senate and House Commerce Committees and the appropriate agencies to ensure that this transition happens without significant disruption and inconvenience.

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