The current Federal Communications Commission drive to make it possible for fewer entities to own more broadcast stations looks relatively minor on paper, and the expected changes are indeed not enormously significant. The major provisions being bandied about:

  • Television group owners, previously limited to coverage of 35 percent of the national TV audience, will be allowed to go up to 45 percent;
  • Current TV duopoly rules (two stations with one owner in a single market) require that one of the two be affiliated with no network, or with one of the Little Two networks (UPN, The WB), a provision which would be removed;
  • Under some circumstances, a single owner could operate three stations in a single market;
  • In the top 100 TV markets, common ownership of newspapers and TV facilities would be permitted.

Not a sea change by any means. But go back twenty-five years. These were the rules in place in 1978:

  • No entity could exceed the rules known familiarly as "7-7-7": seven AM stations, seven FM stations, and seven TV stations (no more than five of which could be VHF — channels 2 through 13);
  • No owner of three VHF stations in the top 50 TV markets could purchase other such stations without a showing of compelling public interest;
  • Newspaper owners could not acquire radio or television stations in the same market;
  • No owner could operate more than one station of the same service in the same market.

In 1984, the FCC proposed to ease the restrictions, but was rebuffed by Congress. The commission later came up with another plan, which established the first percentage-of-audience specification: 25 percent of the national TV audience, or twelve stations, whichever is less. Congress took no action to block this move, and this rule prevailed until the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which raised the limit to 35 percent and killed the 12-station provision outright, and established a new set of rules for radio.

Two owners — Viacom (CBS, UPN) and News Corp. (Fox) — presently exceed the 35-percent cap, though both were granted temporary waivers after the Court of Appeals in D.C. ordered the FCC to come up with justification for retaining the caps.

In Oklahoma City, the 45th largest TV market, I expect that KWTV, still largely in the hands of the Griffin family, will be sold to the Oklahoma Publishing Company, which publishes The Daily Oklahoman, or to a corporate affiliate thereof; since the two are already pooling news for their joint-venture Web site, the difference to most viewers will be insignificant. (Ironically, when the FCC banned newspaper and television cross-ownership in the same market in 1975, OPUBCO was forced to sell off the TV station it had built: WKY-TV, now KFOR-TV-DT, presently owned by The New York Times.) One duopoly exists here: Sinclair Broadcast Group owns KOKH-TV-DT (a Fox affiliate) and KOCB-TV-DT (affiliated with The WB). Nothing earth-shattering here; the FCC actions, expected to be approved by the commission on the second of June, will go largely unnoticed. And there's no reason to think Oklahoma City is especially unique; each market has its differences, but I don't believe "media consumers" will be especially anguished by the proposed changes.

So if Joe and Susan Sixpack aren't going to notice the changes, why is there a small but noticeable upsurge of opposition all of a sudden? Two reasons:

  1. The actual details of the rule changes will not be formally revealed until the FCC vote; who knows what kind of weird provisions (in Oklahoma, we call them "woollyboogers") might be sprung on the American public?
  2. We know what happened to radio since the 1996 Telecommunications Act. There are now only two-thirds as many station owners — the largest group owner, Clear Channel, has gone from forty stations to over 1200 — and I'm hard-pressed to find any radio listener who says things have actually improved since 1996. In Oklahoma City we have more stations — but the reason we have more stations is that the owners are moving rural stations closer to the city, not because we've had a sudden upsurge of competitiveness.

And if the ownership rules, as FCC Chairman Michael Powell says, are obsolete in the Information Age, then perhaps so are the technical rules. The commission goes to a lot of trouble to reduce the incidence of "interference" to existing broadcast stations; as a result, it's almost impossible to get a license for a low-power FM facility in a metropolitan area, lest someone out in the sticks be somehow be blocked from listening to one of the Big Boys. And one that does exist in Oklahoma City will be summarily killed off because a full-power station on the same channel is moving into town. The sentence is automatic; there is no appeal. Until the little guys are afforded the same protections as the big shots, the FCC, I believe, has no justification for cutting the big shots more slack.

The Vent

#342
25 May 2003

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