Media Ownership Rules Are So ’70s

Jon Healey, in an editorial for the Los Angeles Times, devotes the first 5 paragraphs of his October 14th column to a rambling conjecture that a vengeful Richard Nixon conspired with the FCC to bar newspapers from owning TV and radio stations in the same market. After this 250 word conspiracy theory on the inception of cross-ownership rules, Healey admits that…

“Most of the evidence suggests, however, that the rule was not political skullduggery but merely a product of its time. An independent agency, the FCC has historically been more sensitive to pressure from Congress than the White House. And the cross-ownership ban was not just backed by the administration; it was supported by Republicans and Democrats alike on the commission and Capitol Hill.”

So why did Healey waste so much ink on the Nixon connivance? Perhaps it was to prejudice the reader with a negative association before dishing out the rest of his love note to Big Media. Healey argues that the media ownership rules are outdated. I agree, but I don’t share his reasons, or his solutions.

Healey serves up the typical canard that fuels the deregulation advocates. He asserts that technology and new media have produced a more competitive landscape for both television and newspapers. But he is misrepresenting the facts when he says that…

“The number of TV stations and radio broadcasters has increased by more than 50%, as has the number of TV broadcast networks. With most households receiving scores of channels via cable or satellite TV, the four largest networks now draw less than 50% of the prime-time audience.”

It depends on how you count. First of all, his reference to broadcast networks increasing 50% can only be true if you don’t count this year’s collapse of UPN and the WB into the CW network. If you do count it (and why wouldn’t you unless you intend to ignore events that contradict your bias), the number of broadcast networks has declined 16% this year.

Secondly, the contention that the number of TV stations and radio broadcasters has increased by more than 50% only speaks to the number of outlets, not the number of owners. There may be more outlets, but there are far fewer owners. In the past 25 years, the number of companies that controlled the majority of media output plunged from 50 to 5. And since the owners control the outlet’s administration and programming, that is a more significant measure in terms of both competitiveness and diversity.

Thirdly, Healey contends that cable television’s success has drained viewers from broadcast networks, leaving broadcasters with less than 50% of the prime-time audience. But can broadcasters really be said to have lost these viewers when the cable networks to which these viewers have migrated are largely owned by the very same broadcasters or the same parent corporations?

Finally, the flimsiest of all of the examples of alleged competition, is that the Internet has introduced a myriad of new voices that have broken the old media’s stranglehold on mass communication. The Internet is indeed a revolutionary platform for the distribution of information and ideas. But a realistic appraisal recognizes that most of these new voices are heard by only a handful of close friends and family. The truth is that 9 of the 11 most visited Internet news destinations are owned or controlled by the same familiar big media names.

Yes, media ownership rules are so ’70s. They are not keeping pace with the rapid concentration of media voices into such a small group of powerful, multinational corporations whose loyalties are bound to owners and shareholders, rather than consumers and citizens. To paraphrase the Times’ own Tim Rutten

“What this moment in the life of the [media] requires is recognition that the [media]’s social, intellectual and political value to [the public] needs to be unlocked and not just its monetary value to investors.”

Amen. And that will only be accomplished with sensible regulations that preserve independence and diversity.