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Revised Regulations Already the Status Quo

June 03, 2003|Brian Lowry | Times Staff Writer

Critics of the Federal Communications Commission's new rules on media ownership say the changes probably will have a negative effect on everything from the education of children to the welfare of our democracy.

But all the commission actually has done is allow the oligopoly of major companies that dominate the media landscape -- including News Corp., Viacom Inc. and Tribune Co., owner of the Los Angeles Times -- to keep what they have and grow a bit more.

Each of the three already is operating outside the existing guidelines: Tribune through its ownership of TV stations and newspapers in the same cities, such as KTLA-TV Channel 5 and The Times, and News Corp. and Viacom by exceeding the 35% cap on what percentage of the country a single company's TV station group can reach.

By relaxing the newspaper-TV rule in major cities and lifting the overall station cap to 45%, the commission has both brought such companies into compliance with the new law and left them room for further expansion.

"There were no surprises," said Michael R. Gardner, a Washington-based attorney representing independent TV producers seeking protection from networks owning the vast majority of programs they air.

"It was like the commission said, 'We've got to take care of what we've already waived and then give them a little more growth room.' "

Although that may not lead to a huge surge of acquisitions by the biggest companies, the less restrictive rules do open the door for a flurry of deals that could further consolidate ownership -- but probably will not fundamentally change the industry dynamics that currently exist.

Indeed, the road map for revising the rules has been drawn for some time. FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell established what direction he was heading long ago, stating during an October 2001 speech that monopolies weren't necessarily bad as long as viewers were well-served by them.

Powell said at the time that the commission had viewed the issue "only from the perspective of the eyes and ears of the consumer."

Still, critics and public-interest groups clung to slim hopes that the commission could be swayed. They were especially heartened when Republican FCC member Kevin J. Martin broke ranks with Powell and derailed an effort to deregulate the local telephone market. But the public outcry they had hoped would find its way to the debate over media ownership rules didn't materialize.

Critics say the public stayed mute largely because the very media outlets charged with informing it -- particularly in TV and radio -- ignored the issue until the die was cast.

The explosion of options available to consumers, with the average U.S. home receiving almost 100 channels, has hindered warnings about less diversity from taking root. Against that backdrop, arcane discussion about the one-sixth of U.S. homes that rely exclusively on broadcast television (granted, a constituency of more than 40 million people) or TV stations' public-interest obligations proved to be a nonstarter.

Despite the split Monday, with Democratic Commissioners Michael J. Copps and Jonathan S. Adelstein opposing the changes in the 3-2 vote, it is misleading to cast the debate solely in partisan terms.

The seeds were planted by the 1996 Telecommunications Act, when the Clinton administration's FCC dramatically unfettered radio and paved the way for a similar course in television.

To the extent critics influenced the rule-making, their efforts were visible less in what was agreed to Monday than the language used to justify it. Although various cross-ownership rules were relaxed -- such as those governing TV and newspapers -- the commission's news release accentuated the limits being imposed to "protect diversity, localism and competition."

The FCC also provided a small concession by saying that when a company owns multiple TV stations in one city, the stations must air different programs to fulfill the Children's Television Act, a provision requiring them to schedule a few hours each week aimed at enriching kids. Dale Kunkel, a professor of communication at UC Santa Barbara, said that provision acknowledges the duty of broadcasters toward children but in the broader picture amounts to "a finger in the dike of a dam that's being blown up."

The commission's biggest challenge has been justifying that its review is grounded in today's reality. Not surprisingly, critics were unmoved by the elaborate formulas invoked, including the rule the FCC preserved that benefits major station owners by mathematically halving UHF stations (channels 14 and up) in terms of their contribution toward the ownership cap.

But since the vast majority of Americans subscribe to cable, critics say, there's no longer any sense in giving UHF stations less value than their VHF counterparts (channels 2 through 13), because on cable there's no distinction.

"There's no logic at all for that discount," said Jonathan Rintels, executive director of the Center for the Creative Community.

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