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28 June 2006

FCC studies and hearings to remake the case for Big media

The concentration of ownership of US media into the hands of fewer and fewer corporations has been a core focus in the US for the past three years, where there are media monoliths that have the power to directly send a message, biased or not, to almost 40% of all Americans.

And the subject has risen once again, like a phoenix that refuses to die. The Bush administration wanted to drive up the total allowable US addressable percentage to as high as 45% per market, from its previous 35% and it was one of the most bloody internal wars that the respective US Congress and Senate committees have ever fought.

It was finally put to bed in June 2004 when the US appeals court threw out rules that had been pushed through by George W Bush as part of a larger appropriations bill, haggled by an outflanked Senate, in a deal that outraged Congress and was described as a sell out.

The Bush Administration has made no bones about using control of US media to make sure that its message gets across and nobody else’s does. The promise by Bush’s administration to its friends in media, including News Corp and Viacom, which in 2003 already owned more media than they were allowed to, was that it would get the minimum lifted, and it was duly lifted to 39% of all US citizens. That was until the Appeals Court said no and sent it back to the FCC to reconsider.

This week the FCC said that it was ready to reconsider, but for reconsider read, re-apply to raise the limit. The new Chairman of the FCC Kevin Martin was duty bound to bring the subject back up again, having been instructed to do so by the original court within four years. He couldn’t wait much longer.

The Court argued that changes to the FCC Media Ownership rules had no logic behind them and called on it to provide that logic or have them repealed. Status quo of the 39% rule has been upheld during the interim we understand.

The debate had caused such angst among the US parties that a vote of 400 to 20 against the ruling had left it dead until it was wrapped up in the appropriations bill, with the President saying that if the government wanted a budget, it would have to give way to him. That way he avoided using the Presidential veto, but in effect he did veto it.

Back in November the biggest US content companies were once again politicking to get the bill back on the books, hoping to get the Supreme Court involved. The media companies are worried that their role in bringing and keeping Bush in power by offering sympathetic coverage, may go unrewarded during this term of office, with NBC Universal, News Corp and Viacom all said to be considering taking legal action.

The original case goes back to 1969 and is called the Red Lion decision, where the court ruled that using a scarce government resource, i.e. radio spectrum, justified special controls by the FCC to operate in the public interest.

In a court filing in November the new coalition of media companies indicated that a challenge to the Red Lion decision might be filed in its appeal of the recently overturned FCC media ownership deregulation. Instead they will probably wait to see what the FCC can do this time around.

Dissenting FCC Commissioner Michael Copps made a statement agreeing that the review needed to be held, but indicating that he would vote against raising the media ownership level.

His published comments referred to the previous FCC decision to propose higher media ownership as ‘stunning’ and described it as a rule that would allow one corporation to own, in a single community, up to three TV stations, eight radio stations, the cable system, the only daily newspaper, as well as the biggest Internet Service Provider.

He also warned against a ‘stealth based,’ out of the way, non-public consulting process, that resulted in a recommendation to simply reword the media ownership change, which he says would lead to further massive waves of media consolidation.

Copps called for a public process with sufficient time, and research that is delivered to the US public transparently. He also called for the delivery of local content to become properly policed in large corporations, as it’s not currently.

The FCC says it will seek comments on rules regarding the Local Ownership Limit for TV, radio, newspaper and radio cross ownership, and the dual network ban, and will spend $200,000 commissioning studies on how people get news and information, competition within types of media and across media platforms and marketplace changes since the Commission last reviewed its ownership rules

It will look into localism, minority participation in media, and the impact of ownership on the production of children’s and family-friendly programming and hold a number of public hearings, all within 120 days. It is likely that Copps’ concern will be well founded and the FCC will simply collect evidence for the Court about why it was right in the first place.