Copyright 2002 The Christian Science Publishing Society Christian Science Monitor (Boston, MA)
September 19, 2002, Thursday
SECTION: USA; Pg. 02
HEADLINE:Media future: Risk of
BYLINE: By Alexandra Marks
Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
DATELINE: NEW YORK
HIGHLIGHT: Rewriting ownership rules could affect the balance between commercial
and public interests.
American media could be poised to undergo another round of massive
consolidation, and consumer activists are incensed.
Bush administration has begun the most extensive review ever of the rules that
govern the nation's networks, television stations, and cable systems. The rules
were originally designed to ensure that no single Citizen Kane got a lock on the
nation's marketplace of ideas. They restrict such things as one company owning
two major TV stations in the same town.
nation's media giants, such as News Corp. and Viacom, they are outdated
regulations that hinder expansion and fail to recognize the vast array of news
and entertainment now available to consumers through cable systems and the
But for consumer activists, the rules are as
fundamental as the First Amendment in ensuring the health of American democracy.
Especially during this spate of corporate scandals, the notion of lifting some
of the few checks left on the broadcast media is an anathema to them.
It's a battle that pitches commercial interests against
long-standing notions about how to serve "the public interest." And it will help
define the role media will play in American democracy well into the next
"The question is whether our media landscape
has truly changed so dramatically that we no longer need to rely on regulations
to ensure that democracy is well served," says Philip Napoli of Fordham
University. "That's such a critical question that it's incredibly important that
any decisions made are thorough and aren't ideologically driven."
The rules to be reviewed were designed so that information
is provided by a diversity of owners. The idea is to ensure that when Americans
turn on the TV, they're exposed to an array of ideas, representing the full
spectrum of political thought.
In addition to
forbidding a company from owning two major TV stations in the same market, or a
major newspaper and a top station, the rules also put a 35 percent cap on how
much of the public one network can reach.
the nation's media giants contend that they are now unnecessary, because of the
advent of cable news and the Internet. "Flexibility in the broadcast marketplace
is critical in today's highly diverse media environment, particularly in light
of the fundamental changes that have taken place over the years," Viacom said in
Due to earlier mergers, some companies have
already bumped up against the rules. Indeed, the review was prompted, at least
in part, by a lawsuit brought by News Corp.'s Fox network, which owns a
newspaper and two TV stations in New York City.
Tribune Co. also owns both newspapers and television stations in four cities,
mostly as a result of its buying the Times Mirror Co. In fact, it has owned a
station and newspaper for more than two generations in Chicago, a situation that
was grandfathered in when the rules were set in 1975. "Where's the problem?"
asks the Tribune Co.'s Shaun Sheehan. "That's been our stance all along."
Consumer activists are quick to respond. While there
appears to be diversity on the surface, they note that a handful of corporations
already control the national broadcast media and more than half the cable
systems in the United States. "That's resulted in huge cutbacks in news and
public affairs," says Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy in
Then there's the problem of sameness. In
the fight for "eyeballs," the networks often mimic one another's successes,
making it difficult to tell them apart. In radio, where consolidation has gone
furthest, 66.6 percent of people who listen to news listen to stations that are
owned by four companies, according to a study by the Future of Music, a
nonprofit advocacy group in Washington.
that's one reason why radio listenership is now at a 27-year low. "More and more
people are complaining that radio formats are too bland and aren't serving
particular needs," says Andy Schwartzman of the Media Access Project.
The consumer activists' concerns are even greater on the
local level, particularly in small towns. If one company owns the major station
and newspaper, and the owner has been falsifying his books WorldCom-style, would
journalists be able to investigate their own company?
"In this year of financial scandals, we've learned the importance of
keeping the checks and balances on the marketplace," says Gene Kimmelman, the
Washington director of Consumers Union.
The FCC has
commissioned eight studies to examine the issues surrounding the rules. The
findings will be released in the next few months.