March 12, 1998
|Re:||1998 Biennial Regulatory Review -- Review of the Commission's Broadcast Ownership Rules and other Rules Adopted Pursuant to Section 202 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, MM Docket No. 98-|
In the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Congress directed the FCC to review all of our ownership rules every two years and repeal or modify any regulation that is "no longer in the public interest." I support this Notice of Inquiry initiating the review. It is indeed time to take a sober and realistic look at our broadcast ownership rules in light of the current competitive communications environment.
Ownership rules have a long history in telecommunications regulation. At various times, we have justified these rules out of concern over possible competitive harms that might befall viewers and listeners (monopoly prices and restricted output). More often, however, many of the rules we propose to re-evaluate today are hinged on considerations we loosely call diversity.
In mandating that we review these ownership rules every two years, Congress appeared primarily concerned that we adjust or eliminate these rules if, as is anticipated by the Telecommunications Act, sufficient robust competition develops. We have a duty to take a hard look at our ownership rules in light of the current state of competition and to ask and answer whether in light of significant changes in competitive conditions these rules continue to have vitality. In this regard, I endorse fully Commissioner Furchtgott-Roth's clearly enumerated framework for considering these issues, as well as his call to address squarely the validity of spectrum scarcity rationales for our rules.
In all likelihood, however, the pivotal issues in this proceeding are likely to revolve around diversity. While competitive concerns are traditionally evaluated using well-established analytical standards, diversity is a much more visceral matter -- bathed in difficult subjective judgments and debated in amorphous terms. It has always been difficult to articulate clearly the government's interest in "diversity," and it has become even more difficult to do so in light of current judicial precedents. Yet we must do so, if we are to affirm any of our ownership rules based on such an interest, and we must do so with adequate rigor and clarity in order for such rules to withstand judicial scrutiny.
What do we need to know in order to complete this difficult task? At various times there have been a number of distinct expressions of diversity, which serve as a useful beginning framework for evaluation:
(1) Diversity of ownership: What should this mean? Merely a variety of owners, regardless of ethnicity or gender? Adequate representation among owners of minorities and women? If so, how great should that representation be to meet the public interest standard? Is diversity of ownership a legitimate government interest standing alone, or only in combination with other objectives, such as diversity of programming?
(2) Diversity of programming: What is the objective here? A variety of fare? Programming that is tailored to local communities? Programming that is targeted to particular minority or gender groups within a community? And, what is the relationship between ownership and programming, if any?
(3) Diversity of outlets: This can mean many different things as well. Do we wish to maximize the number of diverse outlet mediums (e.g., T.V., radio, newspapers, internet, etc.)? Do we wish to promote multiple outlets of the same type, and if so for what purpose (ownership opportunity, diversity of programming and viewpoint)? How do we measure the adequate number of outlets under the public interest standard?
In the end, we will have to evaluate each of these diversity objectives alone and in combination and consider carefully whether government-imposed prophylactic ownership restrictions actually serve to advance any or all of these objectives, and if so, whether such restrictions are narrowly tailored to meet our objectives. We must be capable of explaining the link between ownership restrictions and our asserted diversity objectives. I urge commentators to provide comments with sufficient depth and sober analysis to allow us to do so.