Media ownership: what's changed and what hasn't

Brandy Doyle
April 15, 2010

Do you think bigger media companies, further deregulation, and fewer independent local voices will solve the crisis in media? Despite all the evidence that consolidation hurts local media, the FCC still isn't sure.

As part of its 2010 review of the media ownership rules, the FCC is holding a public workshop in Tampa, Florida on April 20, 2010 to consider its longtime ban on cross-ownership. Ending the ban (as the FCC tried to do in 2003 and 2007) would allow a single company to own the newspaper and the television or radio station in the same market.

Media activists may remember past rounds of FCC media ownership hearings that brought thousands of people out nationwide to protest media consolidation. The 2010 events have been...different.

These events are wonky workshops rather than noisy hearings, populated by industry insiders instead of big crowds, allowing broadcasters and CEOs to quietly make their case without much attention. Only three of the six workshops are happening outside DC (in Tampa, South Carolina, and an upcoming event in Stanford).

That's not all that has changed. Up until a few weeks ago, the FCC wasn't even allowed to end its cross-ownership ban. But on March 23, 2010, the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals dealt a blow to media justice, lifting a stay against the FCC that had stopped the FCC from dismantling its own rules. That stay was the result of the landmark Prometheus v. the FCC case, which blocked deregulation that would have dramatically homogenized media ownership.

Now that the stay has been lifted, the FCC's 2007 rules are temporarily in effect, which means that cross-ownership is permitted in the top 20 markets, and elsewhere with a waiver process. The FCC can still ditch the 2007 plans when they write the rules this year, especially since there's a new Chairman who may be willing to change course.

But the FCC's return to Tampa signals a serious look at revoking the cross-ownership ban. In a unique situation that predates the 1975 ban, Media General owns both the Tampa Tribune and WFLA News Channel 8 in Tampa. And even Democratic Commissioners have sent mixed signals on cross-ownership recently. The argument is that fewer rules will save newspapers, but cross-ownership hasn't kept the Tampa Tribune from shedding reporters and shrinking news coverage.

As broadcasters and media owners will tell you, media ownership has changed since 2007. They've picked up heavy debts during the consolidation frenzy of fatter years, and now they want bailouts in the form of rule changes (allowing yet more consolidation, just in case times improve).

Big broadcasters claim that the Internet means that we don't need to worry about local news coverage anymore. But it's not true that the rules are no longer relevant in a digital age; the rules still matter. What's different is that just as media companies must learn to innovate, those who care about a democratic media must learn to fight on multiple fronts. From expanding broadband access to saving Net Neutrality to stopping the Comcast/NBC merger, activists and advocates are busy anticipating the challenges of media's future.

Unfortunately, the FCC's review of its rules on legacy media (newspapers, television, and radio) could get lost in the shuffle--even though these less-sexy technologies are still how most Americans get their news.

So it's not surprising if you haven't heard much about media ownership lately. But despite the under-the-radar events and the increasingly complex media landscape, it's not hard to get caught up: Consolidation is still the problem. Independent media is still the solution.