TV Eye

Not in the Public's Interest

In the April 28 issue of Television Week, Doug Halonen reported that "a coalition of civil rights groups asked the Federal Communications Commission to require the industry to help low-income citizens buy digital TV sets" ("Poor Need Help Buying Digital TV Sets"). The request comes in response to the FCC mandate that all broadcasters transition from analog to digital transmissions. According to the report, the high cost of DTV sets and converters and the disappearance of analog signals once 85% of households are digital-ready means that the poor, who rely on local broadcast TV, will suffer.

Is this request by an unidentified "civil rights coalition" a devilish way of making a point or a genuine concern that local TV is a bread-and-butter staple? Perhaps it's both. However, it seems that the coalition ignores a larger issue that has to do with what is on TV and who is deciding its content? In other words, who decides what is "local" TV -- the people who need it or the people who provide it?

On June 2, the FCC will re-evaluate media-ownership rules. Currently, the rules limit media ownership in order to encourage ownership and content diversity, promote localism, and most importantly, prohibit media monopolies. However, the very real possibility that the FCC will drastically relax media-ownership rules is on the horizon, and no one -- not the general public or the aforementioned "civil rights groups" -- seem to be concerned.

They should be.

Presently, there are five entities that control much of this country's media. This comes after years of chipping away at existing FCC rules to accommodate certain media giants (e.g. Rupert Murdoch). If FCC rules are relaxed further -- and they are expected to, thanks to the narrow-minded vision of FCC Chair Michael Powell -- media mergers could create a media landscape that is increasingly insular and fueled by commercial rather than public interest.

It's not like there haven't been ongoing discussions of this in Washington and on the pages of trade publications (Television Week, Hollywood Reporter) and in online publications like Salon.com (in their "Media Borg" series), in AlterNet's "Media Culture" section, and even in this humble TV column (Nov. 8, 2002). However, the issue is noticeably absent on broadcast and cable-network news programs, which devote an inordinate amount of time to celebrating public appearances of one-time child abductee Elizabeth Smart and obsessing over the expression of accused murderer Scott Peterson.

One of the few in-depth reports on what's at stake when the FCC meets on June 2 was shown on NOW With Bill Moyers (PBS) on April 4. While Powell claims that relaxed media-ownership rules would better reflect the culture of the Information Age, NOW offered another view.

According to the segment by Rick Karr, when a catastrophic ammonia spill occurred in Minot, N.D., on Jan. 18, 2002, local authorities turned to six local radio stations to alert the public. However, they (literally) could not find anyone to answer their calls. As it turns out, the local radio programming wasn't local at all, but one of many shows recorded in "far off studios that only sound local." The owner of those six commercial stations in Minot? Clear Channel, one of the most visible beneficiaries of previously relaxed ownership rules in broadcast radio.

In TV, Karr offered the example of Jacksonville, Fla., where "two large media firms bought up all four major network TV affiliates -- Clear Channel owns the CBS and Fox stations, while Gannett [the nation's biggest newspaper publisher] owns the ABC and NBC affiliates." When Gannett decided to pool resources, the result was a shared news report, one on ABC, the other on NBC. The only difference was the broadcast affiliate logo in the corner of the screen. (Karr's report neglected to explain how Clear Channel and Gannett, under current rules, were able to own two stations in the same market.)

While there was one public hearing in late February (following a Feb. 3 letter from 30 congressmen criticizing Powell for not allowing public input), subsequent pleas for Powell to slow down and allow more public education and input on the issue have gone unheeded. According to the Center for Digital Democracy (among other sources), a coalition of scholars asked Chairman Powell in a May 1 letter to offer a review of what the June 2 rulings would include for public consideration. Powell's response:

"I firmly believe ... that further and more specific notice is unwarranted in light of the full record before us and weighed against the pitfalls of further delay."

"Pitfalls" to whom? Perhaps a more direct response could be gathered from another group of lawmakers, which includes Pete Sessions, R-Texas, one of 11 who wrote to Chairman Powell in April urging him to hold fast to the FCC's June 2 ruling date.

It's not too late to voice your concerns for an open and diverse media:

Federal Communications Commission, 445 12th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20554.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett, 10th Congressional District, 126 CHOB, Washington, D.C. 20515. 202/225-4865. Main district office: 300 E. Eighth St. #763, Austin, TX 78701. 916-5921, fax: 916-5108.

And while you're at it, why not ask Pete Sessions, what's the rush? His address: 1318 Longworth House Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20515-4332, 202/225-2231. In Dallas: 972/392-0505.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

FCC, Federal Communications Commission, NOW With Bill Moyers, Rick Karr, Clear Channel, Gannet, Lloyd Doggett, Pete Sessions, Michael Powell, media monopoly, Rupert Murdoch

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