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Regulatory Relief for Poor Media Titans

The Federal Communications Commission is apparently preparing to relax restrictions on media ownership (New York Times report here, editorial here):

Local affiliates and small broadcasting stations fear that any further growth in the networks would be detrimental to viewers in a variety of ways. They say it would homogenize entertainment, discourage local news coverage in favor of national broadcasts and reduce the commercial leverage of the local stations to offer independent programming.

[FCC Chairman Michael] Powell and other supporters of the proposal say that the rules need to reflect the changing marketplace and to help preserve free over-the-air television. In a world where consumers can receive their news and information from hundreds of channels in addition to the Internet, it makes little sense to preserve rules of a bygone era, they say.

This anecdote from the Times article is telling:

Officials said that the commission was expected to increase the national television ownership cap to 45 percent of the nation's viewers and also retain the rule that considers two viewers as one viewer of a UHF station -- the band that over the air has generally been Channel 14 and above.

The provision, known as the UHF discount, came about in a different regulatory and technological era, when a vast majority of viewers received television signals free over the airwaves and had to use special equipment like antennas that resembled rabbit ears to pick up UHF stations. Today, about 85 percent of viewers use paid services from cable and satellite providers, rendering the distinction between VHF and UHF largely a relic.

Officials close to Mr. Powell said today that... there was nothing in the public record to justify changing the way the commission counted UHF viewers and that Mr. Powell had attributed the growth of new networks in recent years to the UHF discount, including UPN, Pax, WB and Fox.

Others outside the agency noted, however, that most of those networks are hardly independent -- UPN is owned by Viacom, WB is owned by AOL Time Warner, and Paxson is 32 percent owned by NBC. Critics of the plan have focused on the UHF provision as emblematic of the selective way that the agency has approached deregulation.

"It's total hypocrisy," said Gene Kimmelman, a director at Consumers Union who has testified in Congress against loosening the rules. "If the theory behind changing the rules is that the F.C.C. needs to keep up with market conditions, to preserve a significant discount for UHF stations is simply a fraud on the regulatory process."

In other words, let's get rid of these archaic regulations, except where they might benefit the media conglomerates.

In an interesting twist, Chairman Powell is using an Orwellian argument -- as Cory Doctorow put it -- to justify the lack of public hearings on the topic:

In a phone interview last week, [dissident FCC Commissioner Michael] Copps said that of roughly 18,000 public comments on the proposed changes -- not counting the hundred or so from media companies or organized coalitions -- "I haven't seen any that say, 'Let's relax the rules further.' " ...

Even the nature of the debate has fallen victim to the FCC's partisan politics. While the two Democratic commissioners, Copps and Jeffrey Adelstein, argued for public hearings around the country, FCC Chairman Michael Powell said such hearings were not necessary given the outpouring of commentary reaching the commission.

In other words, we've received so much negative feedback to this proposal that we can skip the public hearings, which would merely provide more negative feedback, and go directly to voting in this proposal.

What can you do? You can visit MoveOn.org. They have a page set up that will allow you to send a personalized message to your Representative, your Senators, and to the FCC. If you're in a hurry, you can send a message in less than a minute. If you feel strongly about this, why not do it right now?

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