The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

by Jesse Walker

Monday, May 19, 2003
THE WRONG DEBATE: A fellow from Salon called me last week to talk about media consolidation. I rambled, as I often do, and criticized both sides of the debate -- so much so, in fact, that I'm not really sure how I'm going to sound in the finished article. Maybe he'll have me attacking the Clear Channel types, maybe he'll have me attacking their critics, maybe he'll bring in a bit of both -- and then again, maybe he won't quote me at all. Like I said, I rambled.

For those who came in late: On June 2, the Federal Communications Commission will decide whether to loosen the remaining regulations constraining media mergers. (Fearless prediction: It will.) We're talking about a legally enforced cartel here, which means I don't really have a cock in this fight. On one hand, we have purported deregulationists with no interest in removing the regs that have skewed the marketplace toward the current media giants. On the other hand, we have purported defenders of independent voices sticking up for rules that do very little to foster real media diversity, at a time when a much more important fight -- the battle for spectrum reform -- could really, really use their support.

I'll begin with the second group. They're worried about consolidation for a lot of reasons, most of them valid. But because the rules on the table deal specifically with the number of TV and radio stations a single company can own (and, similarly, with limits on the cross-ownership of print and broadcast outlets), they've been thrown into the role of defending the current regulations, none of which are particularly defensible. Consider the most controversial of the proposed changes: the removal of the 35 percent cap. This rule governs the number of TV stations a network can directly own, as opposed to just providing them with programming, restricting them to 35 percent of the national audience. The FCC is likely to replace this with ... a 45 percent cap. Man the barricades!

What, speaking frankly, would such a change do? It would give the networks a chance to make more money. It would give the remaining independently owned stations a little less room to maneuver. But it strains the imagination to believe that it would seriously reduce the number of local voices on the air, if only because so few stations present meaningfully local material during network programming hours anyway. Indeed, when The Washington Post
covered the issue last week, the example it cited of a station-network conflict involved an effort, not to put a local show onto the air, but to take a national one off: "When [an affiliate in North Carolina] received Fox's 'Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?' reality show, station management refused to air it, saying it would offend Raleigh community standards."

There is no magic number -- 35 percent, 45 percent, 25 percent -- that represents the perfect amount of stations a TV network should be allowed to own. Nor should the government be in the business of trying to compute such a figure. If you're satisfied with TV programming now, you will probably continue to be satisfied with it under the new rules. If you're dissatisfied, there's no way to rejigger this reg upwards or downwards that's going to please you.

Perhaps for that reason, the ideological opponents of media consolidation -- as opposed to the miscellaneous industry lobbyists who oppose the changes for reasons of their own -- have also made an issue out of the way the new rules are being passed. It's happening too fast, they say, and with not enough public input. When the FCC reduced the number of public hearings it held on the issue, Democratic commissioners organized independent forums of their own, in theory to get more views on the table and in practice to show how the decision-makers at the agency aren't interested in listening to The People.

On one level, the critics have a point: Federal communication policy is made by unelected bureaucrats with closer ties to the industry they regulate than to the public they nominally represent. On another level, though, the critics are playing make-believe. The commissioners are already aware of all the arguments about these issues, and delaying the decision so more people can be heard isn't likely to change the outcome. If the system is undemocratic, it is because it concentrates so much power into so few hands, not because the rest of us have so little time to make our case. At best, those guerrilla forums are a form of theater, a way to dramatize the cozy relationship between the regulators and the regulated. At worst, they're complaints aimed at the wrong target.

Meanwhile, the defenders of deregulation are being even more disingenuous. The revised rules will (mostly) loosen the government's control of the airwaves, and so the reformers present themselves as the advocates of economic freedom. But when it comes to a much more important libertarian issue -- opening the spectrum to new users and uses -- most of them have been AWOL. Serious changes in the way spectrum is allocated and allowed to be used could radically alter the airwaves, bringing in a world of cheap or free broadband-quality Internet access that is portable, wireless, and therefore capable of competing directly with AM, FM, and TV broadcasters. There is a serious debate over how best to accomplish this technically, but virtually everyone who's a part of that argument recognizes that the most important prerequisite is a matter of regulation, not engineering. The FCC must allow much more flexibility in how licensees may use their spectrum, thus eliminating the allocation bottlenecks that so aggravate the telecom industry; and it must make more room for unlicensed use of the ether, so shared-spectrum technologies such as WiFi and UltraWideBand can flourish. FCC chief Michael Powell has, to his credit, given a rhetorical boost to these new technologies. But his agency has offered very little in the way of real reform.

That could change. But if that happens, it will not be because the beneficiaries of the government's entry barriers make spectrum reform part of their "deregulatory" agenda. They care about real economic liberty about as deeply as their opponents care about the precise level of the ownership cap.

posted by Jesse 12:04 AM
. . .

. . .

For past entries, click here.

. . .