The Big Get Bigger  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    BROADCAST VIEWS    
From AJR,   August/September 2003

The Big Get Bigger   

The FCC makes a misguided decision.

By Deborah Potter
Deborah Potter (potter@newslab.org) is executive director of NewsLab, a broadcast training and research center, and a former network correspondent.     


If the FCC has its way, the big will be allowed to get bigger. The Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the country's broadcasters, voted in June to let the networks own more television stations, and to let media companies own a newspaper and multiple TV and radio stations in the same town. There's an effort in Congress to reverse the ruling, but unless that happens there could be a wholesale transformation of what passes for local news on the air.

Supporters of these changes say the old rules were hopelessly out of date. The cross-ownership restriction, for example, dates back almost 30 years--before the rapid growth of local broadcast stations, cable channels, satellite delivery and the Internet. Now, the argument goes, there's so much content available from so many different sources, no one should worry that allowing further consolidation of ownership would limit that diversity.

That may be true when it comes to music formats or entertainment programs, although the sameness of what we see and hear on the air today suggests otherwise. But it's demonstrably not true when it comes to news--especially local news. The proof isn't hard to find. Just look at radio. Yes, there are more radio stations on the air now than there were 30 years ago, but many have little or no local programming and don't provide their own local news. Instead, they may share one understaffed newsroom, or switch to a feed from a central news hub.

FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, who opposed the rule changes, says that letting one company own multiple stations doesn't just close the door to more diversity on the air, it could actually be dangerous. He points to the case of Minot, North Dakota, where all six commercial radio stations are owned by Clear Channel Communications, the biggest radio group in the country with more than 1,200 outlets. When a train carrying toxic ammonia derailed in Minot last year, police called every station in town to ask them to broadcast the news and warn the public. For more than an hour, Adelstein says, nobody answered the phones at the Clear Channel stations.

Surprising? Not if you happened to notice what the company's CEO told Fortune magazine earlier this year. "We're not in the business of providing news and information," said Clear Channel founder Lowry Mays. "We're simply in the business of selling our customers products."

It's instructive to note that the FCC used similar language in its formal notice of proposed rulemaking, consistently referring to the public not as citizens but as consumers. Whatever happened to the concept that the airwaves belong to the people, and that broadcasters who use those airwaves have a responsibility to serve the public interest?

That old-fashioned idea has been under fire for 20 years, since the Reagan administration first began deregulating the industry. "It's time to move away from thinking of broadcasters as trustees and time to treat them the way that everyone else in this society does, that is, as a business," said then-FCC Chairman Mark Fowler in the early '80s. "Television is just another appliance. It's a toaster with pictures."

Funny, that's not what the public thinks. According to a new survey from the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation, half of those surveyed named local television as their major source of news, compared with 23 percent who said network news and 13 percent who said newspapers. Think they won't notice if local TV news goes down the path blazed by local radio?

Granted, it's unlikely that most TV stations will follow the scorched-earth radio model as long as there's still money to be made putting news on television. But consolidation will allow jointly owned stations and newspaper-TV combinations to produce news more cheaply, by sharing staff and content to keep expenses down and advertising revenues up.

It's not a new concept, and there's no need to guess at the results. Take a look at Seattle, where Viacom-owned KSTW airs a 10 p.m. newscast produced by Cox-owned KIRO across town, using KIRO reporters and anchors. It's easy enough to see what KSTW gets out of the arrangement--a local newscast where it had none. As for KIRO, "They have a platform to expose their people to a whole different audience," says KSTW General Manager Gary Wordlaw. But what does the audience get? Basically, the same homogenized news, at a different time on a different channel.

Offering the same product at more and more outlets is a formula for success in the fast food business, but it shouldn't apply to the news business. Hundreds or even thousands of sources can't guarantee diversity of views if only a few companies produce all the news McNuggets.

###