With the deadline for posting online public comments on the rules for media ownership to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) set to come to an end on January 16, 2007, the commission is preparing for the its planned January 18, 2007 public hearing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
As part of the commission’s 10 Media Ownership Studies, media watch groups, interested citizens and media industry artists have flocked to the commission’s open hearings in Los Angeles, Seattle and Nashville. The debate has raged on a familiar path at these hearings as the commission considers further loosening the rules regarding how much is too much, as media giants like Clear Channel, Disney and CBS gobble smaller media outlets throughout the country and squeeze out local news and talent.
At stake are the rules governing local television multiple ownership regulations and the definitions of a radio market and the counting method of radio stations under the local radio ownership rules. With the current numerical caps set by Congress, the sticky issue of the sliding scale of a single entity controlling up to eight commercial radio stations in a single market, with UHF, ultra high frequency, stations counted as one half a station, is at issue. Any loosening of the rule changes could result in the disappearance of more local newspapers or television and radio stations, while a tightening might see the large media conglomerates being forced to divest themselves of some of their less profitable media holdings.
Basing its emphasis on “the public interest,” the FCC has opened the hearings to the public to analyze the current atmosphere of the media with an eye to measuring the effects of proposed rule changes on such areas as localism, competition, diversity, minority ownership, independent programming, community event coverage and music and the creative arts. The Media Ownership Studies come at a challenge to the 2002 commission rules, replacing a newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership rule and a radio/television cross-ownership rule with one cross-media set of limits.
The 2004 reversal by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, the decision of Prometheus v. FCC, the court reversed the FCC’s relaxed rules on cross-ownership because the FCC had failed to justify the relaxation of those rules. Taking over in 2005 from former chairman Michael Powell, current FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has sought out the public forums to make the sometimes murky inner workings of the commission more transparent.
In his December 11, 2006 opening comments at the Nashville public hearing, Chairman Martin stated, “…Our review is exploring and understanding the competitive realities of the media marketplace. Some of our rules have not been updated for years and may no longer reflect the current marketplace.”
With most of the media conglomerates remaining publicly silent, the public forums for the FCC’s Media Ownership Studies have been seen by local musicians, artists, media watchdog groups and concerned citizens as a rare, welcomed opportunity to vent their frustration at shrinking local news coverage and the tiny, mega corporate pool of talent that squeezes out local musicians, actors and producers. But this series of hearings comes on the heels of some shady doings and a commission packed with people with a political agenda.
It was chairman Michael Powell’s controversial reign over the FCC that saw the continued deregulation of media rules in favor of more consolidation. Powell, the son of former Secretary of State Colin Powell and former policy advisor to Dick Cheney in his role as Secretary of Defense under George H. W. Bush, came on board with an agenda. When presented with a report from his own commission stating that media consolidation had indeed resulted in a negative impact on local news, managers at the FCC were order to destroy “every last piece” of the study.
Powell, the force behind the recent mega media mergers and the heavy fine for Janet Jackson breastcapade, resigned in January 2005, so it wasn’t until Kevin Martin’s re-nomination hearings that Senator Barbara Boxer of California pulled out the leaked report to rake the FCC over the coals about the actual effects of localism in news coverage. But Martin has his own past to be considered.
Martin, before his appointment to the FCC in 2001, was a Special Assistant to the President for Economic Policy, part of the Bush-Cheney Transition Team and a Deputy General Counsel for the Bush Campaign. In a you’re-with-us-or-against-us administration, how much Chairman Martin understands “the competitive realities of the media marketplace” remains to been seen.
With the troubled past of FCC studies and rulings, Chairman Martin will have some deft juggling to do to appease the concerns of Hollywood’s writers and directors, Seattle’s fierce independent music scene and Nashville’s thriving country music market, as well as the average citizen, with those of the media giants News Corp, General Electric (NBC), Disney and Clear Channel. It’s unclear how the commission will use the public hearings and online comments or whether they will indeed make a difference in the face big media money.
Photo: Kevin Martin