Copyright 2002 The Seattle Times Company The Seattle
December 4, 2002, Wednesday Fourth
SECTION: ROP ZONE; Business; Pg. E3
LENGTH: 1033 words
HEADLINE: Fight builds over media ownership
BYLINE: Bill Cahir; Newhouse News Service
BODY: WASHINGTON -- Consider the following world: One corporation owns the
television stations in your town, the daily newspaper, all of the top radio
stations, the cable-TV system and the high-speed Internet network.
Sound impossible? Guess again.
The Federal Communications Commission is reviewing the rules that limit
media ownership of TV, newspaper, radio and cable outlets. The panel will
determine next spring whether to leave the regulations intact, ease the
standards or deregulate these communications media.
Five companies dominate broadcasting in the United States: AOL-Time
Warner, Clear Channel Communications, Walt Disney Corp., News Corp. and Viacom.
Liberalization of the existing rules, critics say, would permit the media giants
to intensify their grip on the news business, drive local voices off the air and
block a variety of political viewpoints from reaching the airwaves.
The companies assert that technology has rendered the
existing FCC regulations obsolete, including a rule that blocks them from owning
newspapers and TV stations in the same market. They say new communications
technologies effectively protect consumers from monopolies, ensuring that
Americans everywhere have an array of choices for news and entertainment.
The FCC last month published a study about media
consolidation that found companies owning both newspapers and television
networks -- a situation permitted by FCC waivers and grandfather rules -- were
not slanting their news coverage in a clear pattern for readers and viewers.
Corporate bias, if present, was not obvious.
time that these rules were conceived, a lot has changed," said Scott Baradell,
spokesman for A.H. Belo Corp. "There was a time period when you had a limited
number of outlets that you could access in terms of news sources. Today, it's a
Belo's properties include the Dallas
Morning News and WFAA-TV in Dallas. In Seattle, Belo owns the NBC affiliate
KING-TV; its Web site, KING5.com; and the regional cable channel
NorthWest Cable News.
The FCC is reassessing
* Block cross-ownership of TV
stations and newspapers in the same market.
corporations from owning more than one broadcast network.
* Forbid one company from providing TV broadcast services to more than
35 percent of the nation's population.
* Disallow cable
companies from serving more than 30 percent of all paid-television
* Block one company from owning more than
eight radio stations in a single urban market.
Sheehan, a Washington, D.C., lobbyist for the Tribune Co., says newspaper
companies need to partner with broadcasters to stay afloat. "Unless we find ways
to cross-promote and cross-fertilize and grow, I think you're stifling democracy
and big-city journalism," Sheehan says.
owns TV stations and newspapers in four major markets: New York, Chicago, Los
Angeles and Hartford, Conn.
Frank Blethen, publisher of
The Seattle Times, has long opposed media cross-ownership. The
concentration of media organizations under corporate ownership sacrifices
journalism in favor of profits, he said in a September speech at the University
of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
ownership is all about money and power," Blethen said. "The bigness of chains
and the singular financial focus of public companies drive out all values and
objectives that are not short-term and financial."
John McCain, R-Ariz., incoming chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, has
said he plans to conduct hearings about any change in the nation's media
Democrats say they are willing to consider
relaxation of media-ownership standards but fret about a total repeal.
"I'm not going to argue ... that 35 percent cap (on
broadcasting ownership) is the perfect place to set the limit," says Sen. Ron
Wyden, D-Ore. "But I'll tell you that I also don't think it's in the public
interest to say there shouldn't be any limits at all. ... "
Republicans control the FCC, 3-2. Chairman Michael Powell has launched
the GOP drive to revise the media-ownership limits.
"This commission will block transactions that are anticompetitive and
harm consumers," Powell said in an October speech. "However ... no transaction
can or will be deemed unthinkable before the application is even filed with the
commission. This commission will review mergers on their merits, and not attempt
to shape the 'right' industry structure by public musings."
Michael Copps, a Democrat on the FCC, contends people need more time to
review the commission's studies and data. He fears the commission is moving
toward deregulation too swiftly, neglecting to consider the public interest.
"Suppose that we go ahead and lift all the caps," Copps
says. "And suppose for the sake of argument that we make a mistake. How do you
put the genie back in the bottle? And the simple and short answer is: You don't.
It's out of the bottle. We'll have a rash of further consolidation. The effects
of that will be around for the rest of our natural lives, and those of our
Michael McCarthy, a lawyer with the
Washington law firm Wiley, Rein and Fielding, says media mergers do not
automatically translate into biased or compromised news coverage.
McCarthy, a former vice president at Belo, contends cross-ownership of media improves service to consumers. Fears
about the political influence of parent media companies are misplaced, he
says: "You're not going to survive in the business if you just hammer home with
one particular view."
Congress in 1996 eliminated the
cap on the number of radio stations that one company could own nationwide. Since
then, Clear Channel Communications has expanded from ownership of 40 stations to
an empire of 1,240 stations.
Consumers have been hurt
by consolidation of radio ownership, says Cheryl Leanza, deputy director of the
Media Access Project in Washington, D.C. Variety in programming has been
quashed, she says.
Listeners "are changing the channel,
but the channel isn't changing," Leanza says.
Seattle Times business reporter Frank Vinluan contributed to this