Tags: New | FCC | Rules | Not | 'Threat' | 'Open | Debate'

New FCC Rules - Not a 'Threat' to 'Open Debate'

Tuesday, 03 June 2003 12:00 AM

This is the result of a proliferation of hundreds of information services on cable TV and thousands on the Internet.

First, let us dispose of the argument by opponents - mostly from the left, but a few from the right - that this action, on a 3-2 party line vote, will stifle dissent and suppress free and open debate.

Pray tell, where were many of these folks when the national and international “news” was decided basically in the newsrooms of three networks - ABC, NBC, and CBS - often taking their cues from the New York Times and the Washington Post?

That situation could accurately be described as a full-blown media crisis that had a chilling effect on “free and open discussion.” Three newsrooms, with the aid of a very few old line metropolitan dailies - effectively decided what was and what was not to be debated in the public square.

This crisis - and again, make no mistake, that’s exactly what it was - was exacerbated by something called the “Fairness Doctrine” which said that every on-air minute devoted to any one view on anything had to be matched on an “equal time basis.”

It did not matter what the “public” wanted to hear, as determined by the ratings (i.e. the “marketplace). A three-hour talk show espousing one point of view had to be matched by a three-hour show taking the opposite view. Too bad for the station owner if the “opposite view” had lousy ratings and did not attract advertisers. That’s the way the programming had to be crafted.

Obviously, a Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity would effectively be silenced under rules requiring station managers to seek out opposing views for minute-by-minute “equal time.”

In recent years, a string of left of center talk show hosts have tried to create a “liberal Rush,” and have failed. The effort continues. and may yet succeed. However, many listeners, judging by surveys, believe they can get the portside viewpoint on the major networks and most newspapers.

Even today, you can count on the fingers of one hand the daily newspapers - at least in major markets - which have a conservative editorial policy.

Faced with these stifling regulations, most station owners, for about 40 years, did their best to avoid being “controversial.” It wasn’t worth the hassle of challenges to their licenses. Regardless of intent, the “Fairness Doctrine” was not really about “fairness.” It was arguably about censorship. Some of those who bemoan today’s situation were cheerleaders for the “Fairness Doctrine.”

Deregulation of over-the-air broadcasting has happened for a number of reasons. Not the least of these was the fact that AM Radio in the eighties was becoming a poverty industry. Rush Limbaugh‘s role in changing that economic situation is almost universally acknowledged within the business.

As more and more people get their news and information from the newer cable and internet media, fewer are viewing/listening to over the air stations and networks. And coming on quickly with tremendous potential for supplying even more diversity in programming is subscription radio, a new industry not yet even out of its crib.

Under these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that broadcasters are restructuring themselves. It is a matter of pure survival. They are responding to market forces. Truth be known, if the old ownership rules were in place, many of the stations in smaller or medium markets would go dark. The money isn’t there for the smaller “mom ’n pop” operations that would spring up in many communities after World War 2.

I started my broadcast career in one such station - a 250-watter in a town then populated by about 5,000 people. Today, that station is dark, and there is no question its decline came at the hands of the many outlets in the new media.

I despair for my former colleagues who want to go into broadcasting and cannot go straight out of high school or college and find work “at the local radio station.”

But I also feel that following a sometimes painful transition period, the new world of cable TV, subscription radio, and the Internet can offset that lack of opportunity, even as large companies, with the help of advanced technology, keep stations on the air by using the same talent for their programming in different cities, trying as best they can, with varying degrees of success, to maintain “the local flavor.”

No one can argue the current trend in broadcasting is an unalloyed blessing. I started in the news business at a small station which is now serving as an educational outlet. Were I in that position today, I would likely have to look for opportunities in other news or announcing outlets.

Which brings us to another downside of today‘s trends: Fewer radio stations are doing local news. Here in Washington, only two radio stations hire fulltime news staffs. But they do it well, as the broadcast market has become more specialized - again in response to what the public wants, as evidenced by the ratings race. “Niche radio” has caught on with the public.

Recent years have seen the advance of local news coverage in more weekly suburban journals and improvements in small town weeklies or dailies. Again, not a perfect solution, but we are in a transition. Change is inevitable in broadcasting as in any other industry. And to be sure, the change is sometimes painful.

But previous generations have faced changes brought on by new technology. The advent of the automobile ultimately forced my grandfather to get out of the saddle shop business.

The FCC’s new rules - likely to be the subject of court challenges - allow the networks to own television stations that reach a combined 45 percent of the national audience, as opposed to 35 percent at present. That change seems rather modest.

The agency is lifting the ban that prevents a company from owning both a newspaper and a radio or TV station in the same market, except in the smallest markets.

Back in the sixties, I worked for a radio/TV outlet that was under the same ownership as one of the two local newspapers. I will say emphatically that we served this medium-sized market very well. The combined talents of those entities offered a service to the public that was of legendary excellence. And we had plenty of competition. As the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The FCC now says a company can own two TV stations in the same market, provided they are not in the top four. In areas served by more than 18 stations, one company can own three TV outlets. It strains the imagination to understand how this poses a “threat.”

The four largest TV networks, ABC (Disney), CBS (Viacom), NBC (GE) and Fox (NewsCorp) would still be banned from merging with each other.

Again, the solution is not perfect, and I despair for those who want to go into the business and can’t find work in an industry forced to re-invent itself in the face of advancing technology. Clearly, the shrinking of local broadcast news is another downside.

Overall, however, there is every good reason to hope and believe that once the transition works its will through the free marketplace, the public will end up with a net plus.

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This is the result of a proliferation of hundreds of information services on cable TV and thousands on the Internet. First, let us dispose of the argument by opponents - mostly from the left, but a few from the right - that this action, on a 3-2 party line vote, will...
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Tuesday, 03 June 2003 12:00 AM
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