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FCC EASES OWNERSHIP RULES

As Expected, G.O.P.-ruled Commission Relaxes Rules for Media; More Mergers Expected
God Bless America.

Like something out of a Frank Capra movie, a grass-roots outpouring of opposition against the further relaxation of media ownership rules surprised the nation’s pundits—and stunned the Federal Communications Commission, which rendered its decision on the matter today.

Sending letters and emails, clogging phone lines, marching in D.C. with picket signs, protesters expressed opposition to the consolidation of communications outlets, voicing their outrage that the public airwaves and print media—already stultified by conglomerate control—would be allowed to fall into still fewer hands. It was a stirring eruption of popular dissent.

Of course, it was completely ignored. With the kind of evil cackle only a powerful cabal can emit, the FCC voted 3-2 to further weaken constraints on media ownership.

FCC head Michael Powell had long argued that existing limits on how many media outlets a single firm could own were seriously outdated—crafted, as they were, in the era when there were only three commercial television networks—and must be reconfigured for the age of cable, the Internet and wireless communication.

In particular, owners of broadcast networks have complained that their flag enterprises were being undercut by cable, which has lower overhead and can afford to charge less for advertising. Of course, many of the complainers also own cable networks, but mentioning that might have made them feel awkward, so hardly anyone did. They’ll now be able to reach a combined 45% of national audience, up from 35%.

What’s more, companies will now be able to own both a TV station and a newspaper in the same market throughout more of the country.

"I have heard the concerns expressed by the public about excessive consolidation," Powell said prior to the vote. "They have introduced a note of caution in the choices we have made. Keeping the rules exactly as they are, as some so stridently suggest, was not a viable option. Without today's surgery, the rules will assuredly meet a swift death."

Speaking of swift death, that’s what opponents of the new ruling predict for diversity of opinion in the wake of an expected new bunch of media mergers. Activist organizations like MoveOn.org, which mobilized a large campaign of resistance to relaxing ownership rules, painted a future in which the Rupert Murdochs and Clear Channels of the world controlled all mass sources of information.

Even users of America Online—not noted for their radical politics—voted overwhelmingly against the decision in an online poll. AOL is owned by AOL Time Warner, which also owns, among other things, Time, Warner Cable, CNN, Entertainment Weekly and, of course, Warner Music Group.

However, Randolph May of the Progress & Freedom Foundation, a self-styled "market-oriented think tank" focused on the impact of digital media, celebrated the decision, which he called "fairly modest."

"Today the FCC took long overdue steps to relax its outdated media ownership restrictions," reads a statement from May. "There are now vastly more media outlets and sources of news and information than there were when the rules were adopted 30 or 40 years ago. These rules were put in place before 85% of American households subscribed to 300-channel cable and satellite television systems and before the Internet revolutionized information dissemination. At the time the rules were put in place, ‘channel surfing’ had not entered our lexicon, and ‘surfing the Web’ was not even a dream."

Until the protests, the issue was scarcely mentioned by the broadcast and cable news networks that could well be reshuffled as a result of the FCC’s decision. To be fair, though, they were very busy covering important developments on the celebrity-dating front.

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