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Results of FCC's Media Studies Are Released

Regulations: The agency is expected to use the findings to provide justification for future rules on ownership.

October 02, 2002|EDMUND SANDERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Media consolidation has not reduced the diversity of programs on television and radio, although concentration of ownership may result in more TV commercials and similar slants in news coverage, according to government studies released Tuesday.

The Federal Communications Commission requested the 12 studies as part of its review of media-ownership rules, which cap the growth of broadcasters and restrict TV stations from merging with newspapers and radio stations in the same market.

Over the last 18 months, appellate judges in Washington repeatedly have overturned or remanded the FCC's media-ownership rules, saying they lacked adequate justification. As a result, FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell has said his agency will unveil a new set of media-ownership rules by next year.

"The FCC is going to use these studies to provide the justification for all these future rules," said Richard E. Wiley, a former FCC chairman.

The studies, prepared by the FCC and various universities, generally offered support for Powell and large media companies that are seeking to repeal or relax the rules.

One study, conducted by Joel Waldfogel, professor of business and public policy at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, suggested that consumers are using the Internet increasingly as a substitute for television news.

Because of the rise of the Internet, some have argued that the media-ownership rules no longer are needed.

Those findings, however, appeared to be contradicted by a Nielsen Media Research survey of 3,000 consumers, who said they relied mostly on broadcast TV, cable news and daily newspapers to stay informed. In this study, more than 83% said they relied on TV for national news compared with 21% who used the Internet.

"These studies represent an unprecedented data-gathering effort to better understand market and consumer issues so that we may develop sound public policy," Powell said in a statement.

But FCC officials declined to comment further on the surveys, saying they did not want to spin the results in any particular direction.

Jeff Chester, founder of the Center for Digital Democracy, questioned whether the studies offered an unbiased view of the media rules.

"The studies released today reveal a deeply flawed perspective that--while ratifying the chairman's view--fails to adequately assess the realities of the news and entertainment media marketplace," Chester said. "A research agenda on this critical issue should be developed and conducted outside of the FCC--not with staffers who must please the chairman."

Though some worry that increased media consolidation will result in less local programming, a study by FCC staff concluded that network-owned TV stations provided 23% more local news and public affairs programming than network affiliates.

The same study concluded that TV stations that are jointly owned with newspapers received higher ratings, won more awards and produced more programs. Those results will provide ammunition to media corporations, including Tribune Co. (parent of the Los Angeles Times), that are seeking to repeal the newspaper-television cross-ownership ban.

A study by David Pritchard, media law professor at the University of Wisconsin, found that of 10 commonly owned newspaper-television combinations, five had a similar slant in covering the final weeks of the 2000 presidential election, while five had different slants.

The release of the studies starts the clock ticking for the FCC's long-anticipated review of the media rules. The commission will give interested parties 90 days to comment on the studies and the proposed rule changes. It promises to complete the process by next spring.

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