Tales From the Sausage Factory — The Media Compromise

Hello all.

As this is my first post, a brief introduction. I am Associate Director of a non-profit public interest law firm, the Media Access Project (www.mediaaccess.org). I love communications policy, which as you might imagine is all the rage at cocktail parties. I cannot tell you how many women I have seduced by whispering to them “let me tell you about TELRIC pricing!”

12/24, I’ve moved the bulk of this essay below the fold.

Unfortunately for the people of the United States, media policy has actually become important in their lives. I say “unfortunately” because the actions of the government have generally been going the wrong way — transferring power to ever larger and more vertically integrated media companies. “Vertically integrated” means that the same company owns lots of different stages of production, and therefore has incentive to leverage various pieces of itself. For example, when CBS was trying to land an interview with PFC Jessica Lynch, it offered more than an interview on a news show. It offered a combined infotainment package of news shows on CBS, MTV appearances (another Viacom property) a book deal (through Simon and Shuster, another Viacom property) and a movie deal (produced and distributed by other Viacom properties). Why do I suspect the news coverage on CBS might be a tad influenced by the desire to market the book and entertainment products produced by other parts of Viacom? I know, I’m just cynical . . . .

As a result, people who care about this issue are forced to do something we Americans really don’t like to do all that much: exercise our democratic rights and priveleges to sound off to law makers and get them to actually work for the people who elected them for a change.

For those just tuning in, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued an order in June that would allow the networks to buy more television stations, would allow a single owner to own up to three television stations and a local daily paper in the same market. You can find the original FCC Order at www.fcc.gov/media

National ownership is measured by what percentage of the country you can reach without going through an affiliate. The reason people care is that a network affiliate is an independent broadcaster with an obligation to do some local programming. But the network doesn’t care about you locally. If local station wants to cover a local news story about how GE (which owns NBC) is polluting the local water, you won’t hear about it if NBC owns the broadcast station but you will if it’s an affiliate. And if NBC owns the top three stations and the local newspaper, forget about finding out if GE dumped pcbs in your local river.

The local ownership limit before the action was 35%, i.e., anybody could own stations reaching 35% of the country, by population.

Over two million people filed comments in this proceeding, 99% of them negative. Common threads were:

1) Big media companies have been buying up more independents since Congress raised the ownership cap to 35% in 1996.

2) Programming now sucks worse than ever and news coverage has become a joke.

3) Five companies decide who gets heard and who doesn’t.

4) We kinda like more variety than that, thank you.

5) Have we mentioned that since consolidation, programming sucks and news coverage is a joke?

As it turns out, even Congresscritters listen when two million people get upset. I find this rather reassuring.

Congress voted to roll back the ownership limit to the old level of 35%. The Bush administration, however, likes the new expanded rules. So they threatened to veto the roll back. The Senate and House Republican leadership likewise praised the FCC and refused to support the roll back.

But a funny thing happened, many individual senators and representatives decided they didn’t care what the leadership said. Why? Because politicians rely on getting press coverage and they understand that if one company controls the daily paper and the television stations in your market, that company owns you. You will vanish off the face of the universe (think of Harry Potter trying to get the word out on Voldemort’s return when the Daily Prophet refused to run the story). So rather than have to kiss Rupert Murdoch’s or Mel Karmazin’s butts for eternity, they decided to tell the leadership to shove off.

(Check out William Safire’s 12/10 Column on the Russian elections for an illustration of the power of media ownership)

Happy ending for democracy, right? Not quite. The Administration, in a furious bit of negotiation on the recent omnibus spending bill, got the limit raised from 35% to 39%. Why? Because two networks — News Corp. (Fox) and Viacom (CBS and UPN)– are already over the 35% limit and would otherwise have had to sell stations (a thing called “divestiture” ).

Still, I suppose I must take some comfort in maintaining the status quo, at least. It also demonstrates an important point: even in the face of ovrwhelming opposition and a media blackout, people can still make a difference in this democracy of ours. It ain’t easy, but it can be done. So no excuses for shrugging your shoulders and complaining that the game is rigged so why play.


  1. >>>I cannot tell you how many women I have seduced by whispering to them “let me tell you about TELRIC pricing!” <<<

    Actually, that might even work on me. I’m a law geek. 🙂

  2. I’ll see if I can find the article I saw recently on Clear Channel’s leveraging its influence, in terms of its airtime for musicians, on which venues those musicians play. (And gee, how coincidental that Clear Channel also owns or holds big stakes there. 🙁 I hope I can find it again; I made the mistake of neither bookmarking nor PDFing it and now have needed to refer to it twice in two days…

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