Know Your Media Rules

(Originally published at StopBigMedia.com)

Last month the Federal Communications Commission officially kicked off its 2010 review of the nation’s five media ownership rules, which exist to protect citizens from media consolidation, and ensure that broadcasters serve the public interest. These rules have been at the center of a long fight, pitting people around the country against big broadcasters and their hired hands.

In 2002 and 2006, the FCC tried to eliminate many of the media ownership laws , sparking widespread public outcry. Millions of people contacted Congress, attended FCC field hearings and wrote letters opposing the continued trend toward media consolidation. In fact as they embark on this latest review, the rule changes the FCC tried to push through in 2002 and 2006 are still being battled out in the courts. It may seem strange to be considering new rules while the old rules are still up in the air, but that’s the way it goes in Washington.

It is crucial that local citizens are a part of the review process, and to play an effective role, they must understand how these rules impact the news and information we receive in our neighborhoods and communities.

These rules are designed to protect our public airwaves, which the broadcasters get to use for free, making hundreds of thousands of dollars on this valuable national resource. To that end, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps urged the public to be an active part of this debate. “I hope that the Commission will ‘go on the road’ in the months ahead to hear directly from consumers and citizens,” he wrote. “I know of no better way for us to educate ourselves about the problems faced by, and the solutions sought by, the American people.”

“Anyone who actually thinks that who owns the media doesn’t significantly affect how our country is being informed is not paying attention,” wrote Copps in announcing the 2010 review. “It is difficult to fully quantify the harmful effects that media consolidation has had on the news, information and entertainment we receive. Fewer and fewer voices do not an informed electorate and robust democracy make.”

The following rules are included in the quadrennial review:

Local Television Ownership Limit. In general, one company is not permitted to own more than one TV station in a viewing area. This rule, however, has some problematic exceptions. Specifically, a single company can own two television stations in a local market so long as one of the stations is not one of the top four most popular stations in the area, and as long as there are at least seven other independently owned-and-operated commercial or noncommercial full-power broadcast television in the area after the consolidation. This “eight voices test” is the FCC’s way of ensuring there is a diversity of viewpoints in the local media. Last time around, in 2006, the FCC reasserted that this rule is vital to promoting competition on the airwaves.

Local Radio Ownership Rule. This rule was gutted when Congress passed the 1996 Telecommunications Act and eventually allowed one company, Clear Channel, to own more than 1200 radio stations across the country. Currently, the rule permits one company to control: up to eight commercial radio stations in our nation’s largest cities and as many as five stations in smaller communities. In both 2002 and 2006 the FCC kept their hands off this rule, leaving in place the relaxed guidelines from 1996. Many argue that stricter rules are needed to rein in radio ownership consolidation.

Newspaper/Broadcast Cross-Ownership Rule. The newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership ban was put in place in 1975 to stop one company from owning a broadcast station and a daily newspaper in the same community. However, during the 2006 review, the FCC ignored calls from Congress and the public, and substantially relaxed this rule. The agency set up a complex set of guidelines allowing cross-ownership in the 20 largest cities across America. However, the rule is so riddled with loopholes that it effectively makes it possible to implement cross-ownership in even the smallest media markets. Free Press research , using the FCC’s own data, has shown that this rule change will result in less local news and targets minority media owners who are already woefully under-represented in our media system.

Radio/Television Cross-Ownership Rule. This rule is particularly complex and hinges on all the other rules, so I’ll let the FCC describe it in their own words:: One company may own “up to two television stations (to the extent permitted under the local television ownership rule) and up to six radio stations (to the extent permitted under the local radio ownership rule) in a market where at least 20 independently owned media voices would remain post-merger. In markets where parties may own a combination of two television stations and six radio stations, the rule allows a party alternatively to own one television station and seven radio stations.”

The Dual Network Rule. While one company can own multiple broadcast networks, the FCC prohibits mergers between the top four networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC). In general, the FCC is wary of the market power that would result from a merger between any of the top four networks. The FCC has consistently upheld this rule as a key element in ensuring competition and localism.

At the root of these five rules is the same fundamental mission that has been at the heart of the FCC since it was founded in 1934. In launching the 2010 review, the FCC wrote, “our ownership rules must be designed to promote our enduring public interest goals in the marketplace of today and tomorrow… Through our ownership rules we strive to ensure that owners promote programming responsive to local needs, including public safety information and quality children’s programming. All of these types of programming serve the public interest.”

*Descriptions of the five rules are excerpted or adapted from the FCC’s Notice of Inquiry.

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