March 12, 1998
|Re:||Review of the Commission's Broadcast Ownership Rules and Other Rules Adopted Pursuant to Section 202 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996|
Today, we launch our first biennial review of the broadcast ownership rules pursuant to the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Just as it is a good idea to clean out the attic or basement periodically, I believe the Commission should and will take a hard look at its regulations and follow the statutory directive to "repeal or modify any regulation it determines to be no longer necessary in the public interest" (Sec. 202 (h) of the Telecommunications Act).
The Commission has long held the view that the public interest is served by the twin goals of promoting competition and diversity of voices. I subscribe to that view.
Some argue that media consolidation does not have an adverse effect on diversity. I disagree. What's needed are independently owned outlets -- not a variety of content controlled by one owner. In 1945, the Supreme Court counselled that the First Amendment "rests on the assumption that the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public..." (Associated Press v. United States, 326 U.S. 1, 20 (1945)(emphasis added). The wisdom of the Court's opinion is as valid today as it was when it was penned in 1945.
"Antagonistic" sources can only be truly antagonistic (in the best sense of the word) if they are separately owned and genuinely compete in the marketplace of ideas. We should not confuse "multiple" choices with "independent" choices. For example, we now have "multiple" sources of news and information offered by NBC -- the national broadcast network, CNBC, and MSNBC -- which is all to the good. However, by contrast, "independent" choices are available to viewers by the emergence of competitors to CNN -- MSNBC and Fox News.
As we look at the specific rules under review in this proceeding, I urge commenters to help us assess the cumulative effect of the sweeping changes in radio and television since the Congress relaxed the national ownership rules and the local radio ownership rules.
Local Radio Ownership: I note the Commission's finding that control by the top four radio group owners over total radio advertising dollars in markets across the country has gone from 80 percent in 1996 to a whopping 90 percent in 1997. In just one year, the other stations in those markets -- and that could be dozens of stations -- have seen their combined market share cut in half!
This stark fact must have consequences that need to be spelled out in this proceeding. How are smaller stations able to compete? How are they able to take a risk on new services or talent? How are they able to continue providing community and charitable support, which rarely contributes to the bottom line? Are our ownership rules inadvertently causing the financial suffocation of small entrepreneurial broadcasters? What is the impact on the number of minority and female-owned outlets?
Video Programming: I want to explore the relationship between ownership of local stations and programming. Does structural independence among local stations contribute to a competitive and diverse marketplace for programming? What impact, if any, does the ever-increasing web of relationships between program suppliers and station owners have on the independence of news and information as well as on entertainment programming?
Newspaper-Broadcast Cross-Ownership: Our long standing ban on common ownership of daily newspapers and local broadcast stations is due for review. As we think about changes in this rule, we should consider whether we take for granted the importance of critical reporting between and about newspapers and television/radio. We assume our newspapers will take a TV or radio station to task on errors, omissions, and editorial points of view -- and generally they do. Likewise, TV and radio stations challenge local newspapers every day. This healthy antagonism aids viewers and readers as they become informed and then form their opinions. The critical question we need to ask is whether such a dynamic will continue to exist if common ownership of these traditional adversaries is permitted.
As our country has changed and our population has become more suburban over the last fifty years, new questions arise in our diversity analysis. As city populations have migrated to metropolitan and suburban areas and even "ex-urban" areas, we may need to consider how to measure diversity within different parts of large markets. Many communities situated in the shadow of the major metropolitan city are served primarily by the large TV and radio stations in the major city, along with a community or suburban newspaper. In my experience, only a handful of these media outlets truly focus on issues of special concern to these outlying communities. Where proposed combinations involve stations or papers serving the suburban community, in addition to evaluating diversity choices for the urban population, we should also focus on the impact of the acquisition on suburban communities.
At the heart of my deep and abiding concern about diversity of ownership of America's media is my view that such diversity is an "insurance policy for democracy." The free market of ideas and information is essential to self-governance.
We must not be lulled into a sense of complacency by having more channels, more formats, and the Internet. Is it in the public interest if the overwhelming number of significant outlets are owned by a small handful of players? We need to insure that there are enough truly independent and antagonistic providers of information at each level of content development and distribution.