Next Monday, FCC Chairman Michael Powell will unveil new media-ownership rules. It's such an exciting moment for big media that Powell's agenda has become known as simply "June 2," which is the date he'll tell the media world that they can get even bigger than they are now. It's about a 45% cap vs. a 35% cap, it's about newspaper/television crossownership, it's about expanding duopolies. If you've read this magazine once in the past two months, you know the drill, and you know the outcome.
American television might actually cover it. Probably not, because it hasn't paid much attention so far, with the admirable exception of Now With Bill Moyers
on PBS. On average, 2 million viewers a week watch Moyers, who has featured a number of critics of deregulation, so much so that Rep. Billy Tauzin, the friend of broadcasters, upbraided Moyers on Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor.
Talk about obscene fare on television these days. On the April 4 edition of Now, a Moyers correspondent, Rick Karr, said this, right on the air:
"More than three-quarters of Americans now watch channels that are owned by just six companies. And those companies own dozens of the best-known names across the media. Just for one example: Viacom owns CBS, UPN, MTV, BET, Nickelodeon, Showtime, Paramount Pictures, 39 local television stations, the nation's second-largest radio chain, more than 100,000 billboards, more than 4,000 Blockbuster stores and the venerable publishing house Simon and Schuster."
And on June 2, Viacom will be unshackled, so, you know, it can finally expand a little.
So will Fox and Disney and NBC and AOL Time Warner, which struggle along trying to eke out an existence. It is purely coincidence that "June 2" will occur approximately 10 days after the broadcast networks got advertisers to plunk down more than $9 billion in the upfront market, at big price increases over last year.
The FCC is supposed to make sure there's diversity in media. And indeed there is, at least a little. What's strange to me is that the FCC and large media companies often make the argument that, in essence, "there's enough diversity. Let's not go crazy with all these different voices. There's even the Internet! We're drowning in diversity." And that argument seems to be winning.
It's true. We've come a long way since three big networks were all we could watch. Now we've got hundreds of networks that just so happen to be owned by five or six companies.
Loosening the rules will create some new situations that no one at the FCC has thought of yet. Once the damage is done, though, it's the media world that we will have to live in. When the FCC liberalized radio-ownership rules, it ended up with Clear Channel owning 1,200 radio stations, which was clearly not the kind of expansion they were expecting. Oopsie! Everybody now believes that was one that kind of got away from the commission and it has learned their lesson. I don't know.
No one has made a very good case why liberalization of the ownership cap will in any way be better for the public. FCC Commissioner Michael Copps (who has also appeared on Moyers' show) has held hearings nationwide to hear from the public, which seems to agree, although, as Moyers and others have pointed out, getting publicity about these meetings has been rather difficult.
Even I would probably disagree with some of the critics that Copps has heard. I don't want to knock free enterprise. I'm not against big. In business, you take what you can get. You're out to beat the competition. You want the biggest and best assets. Fine and good. I'm all for the broadcast networks' owning cable networks and all the local stations that they do. I suppose my question is: What is the rationale for their owning even more?
The rules the Powell and the Republican majority of the FCC propose to change don't just let companies get bigger. They effectively prevent new entrants, and that's what "June 2" solidifies.
One of Moyers' nastiest critics of deregulation, Robert McChesney (who wrote Our Media, Not Theirs), compared big media's manipulation of the FCC rules to the scene in Godfather, Part Two
in which mobsters Hyman Roth and Michael Corleone slice up a cake shaped like Cuba and each gangster gets a piece.
The networks, McChesney says, have already sliced up their cake, and they still fight over who gets the biggest slice. "But what they all agree," he says, "is that no one else gets a slice."
Bednarski may be reached at email@example.com