The FCC Does Business

No one knows what goes on behind closed doors


During the April convention of the National Association of Broadcasters, The New York Times reports, Federal Communications Commission chief Michael Powell met with several broadcast executives in a Las Vegas hotel. "The executives—from Post-Newsweek Stations, Scripps Howard Broadcasting, Hearst-Argyle Television, Cox Television and Belo—had tried unsuccessfully for more than a year to meet with him to discuss a petition they had filed against the networks….According to participants in that meeting, Mr. Powell listened to the group's opposition to changing the national ownership cap and then posed what he called a hypothetical question: Would the group support an increase in the [number of TV stations one company can own] if the F.C.C. ruled favorably on some aspects of their petition?"

Powell, the paper adds, disputes this account of the meeting, saying he raised the two issues but did not intend to suggest that one be traded for another. But the most interesting fact is not under contention: The meeting undeniably took place.

Why is that interesting? Because it gets to the heart of why so many people are uncomfortable with the FCC's forthcoming decision about what to do with its ownership regulations. Just six days from the deadline, we still don't know what exactly the commission is proposing to do. Powell has kept his specific plans close to his vest, forcing the rest of us to rely on leaks, rumors, and trial balloons. There has been only one official public forum on the issue.

But there have been plenty of meetings like the one in Las Vegas, between the regulators and the industry it cozily governs.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires the FCC to justify its ownership rules every two years; otherwise, the courts can just throw them out. The rules in question are complex, cumbersome, and, when taken one by one, hard to defend. Consider the most contentious issue on the table, relating to how many TV stations one company can own nationwide. The formula in question allegedly exists to make sure viewers do not have to depend on too few sources for information about the world, but it isn't exactly the simplest approach to the issue. The current cap limits what percentage of the audience a single owner can reach, when the more relevant issue is how many alternatives that audience can access.

The best that can be said about the existing regulations is that the revisions could be even worse. The new rules will surely be looser than the old ones when it comes to media ownership (though some reports suggest that the FCC will require some radio chains to divest themselves of some stations). But they will do nothing to eliminate the barriers that hinder new stations that would enter the fray. The industry's big players argue that they need these ownership-rule changes because they face new competition from cable and the Internet. But cable and the Internet face restrictions of their own, some imposed by the FCC and some by other hands. It would be a lot easier to get the free-market crowd behind the revised ownership rules if there were a simultaneous effort to open new spectrum, eliminate cable franchise monopolies, make it easier to get a broadcast license, and repeal (or at least reform) the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. As Glenn Reynolds put it in TechCentralStation, "if you think that concentration in Old Media is okay because New Media will provide the discipline, then stand up for freeing the New Media from the shackles that the Old Media are trying to weld on. Because if you're not serious about freeing the New Media, then you're not serious about competition, and what you're describing isn't a bold new world, but a sellout."

There's a loud and vigorous movement against the changes. At times, its vision seems just as stunted as the regulators'. Democratic commissioner Michael Copps has made a big deal out of the fact that the FCC has held only one public forum on the issue; he has organized several guerilla forums of his own, to represent the public input he says has been absent from the debate. Powell's response—that he already knows the opposition's arguments—has earned him a lot of flak, but under the circumstances it's entirely appropriate. Copps is not suggesting, after all, that the public be allowed to vote on the rule changes itself. He does not want to change the basic structure of decision-making, in which five commissioners adopt a plan and then submit it to the courts for their approval. He just wants more "public debate," which is fine as far as it will get you but won't really get you very far.

Nor, I should add, does more direct public control sound very appetizing, if by "more direct public control" you mean giving the various pressure groups that purport to speak for the public a seat next to the broadcast executives the next time Michael Powell holds a private meeting. Don't be misled into thinking that all the opponents of media consolidation are in the fight because they want room for more independent voices on the air. Some want exactly the opposite: The conservative Parents Television Council, for example, believes that the new rules will increase the amount of broadcasting that it finds indecent.

Serious opponents of media concentration and serious supporters of deregulation can coalesce around a different demand: for public access to the airwaves, with low entry barriers and simple, understandable rules of the road. And if it's hard to imagine such a change coming from Congress, it's even harder to imagine it emerging from a private meeting in a Vegas hotel.