The Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) deregulation of broadcast media hit a new low in June 2003, when the FCC, in a 3-2 vote, issued a set of new rules that would have essentially eliminated many of the remaining regulations limiting media concentration in the U.S. The rules would have allowed one company to own the local newspaper, eight radio stations, three TV stations, and the local cable system in one media market. Diverse television programming and the coverage of local news is clearly at stake.
Consumer Groups Unite
Consumer groups immediately challenged the rules in federal court and organized a successful consumer campaign in which millions of consumers wrote to the FCC to oppose the new ownership rules. A coalition of consumer and public interest groups launched a successful lawsuit, which eventually led to the overturning of much of the FCC's ruling. The court sent the rules back to the FCC, where they are currently pending.
Broadcast Ownership Cap
One provision that was addressed separately from the court challenge had to do with the number of broadcast stations one company could own nationally. The FCC tried to deregulate the limits, but Congress intervened.
Prior to the June 2003 FCC rule changes, TV networks were limited to controlling 35% of the national TV audience. The FCC order would have increased this limit to 45 %, allowing the big television networks (CBS, NBC, ABC, and FOX) to go on a buying spree acquiring local TV stations around the country. This would have decreased viewers' exposure to diverse and independent news and information.
The conglomerates that own these networks already dominate TV viewership, controlling as much as two-thirds of the prime-time audience. These conglomerates also control the production of most of the programming they air on their networks.
The FCC order would have made the situation much worse, allowing more concentration of ownership and control over programming. By arbitrarily choosing to increase by 10% the number of local TV affiliates a network could own, the FCC would have opened the door to less localism, diversity, and competition in most every media market in the country.
Congress stepped in to overturn the broadcast ownership rule changes. After first voting to keep the ownership cap at 35%, both the House and Senate raised the aggregate cap to 39% by attaching a rider to a massive funding bill. The 39% cap allowed Viacom/CBS and News Corp/FOX to keep all their stations.
Financial Interest and Syndication Rules
The FCC also had rules to protect independent content producers on broadcast networks (think about the company that makes the program you watch on a network) through their financial-interest and syndication rules, often called fin-syn. These rules were overturned by courts in the mid-90s. Advocates like the Center for Creative Voices in Media argue that diversity is harmed when media conglomerates own the network and most of the programming aired.
Find Out Who Owns Your Media
The Center for Public Integrity's Media Tracker can help you find out who owns the media — including television stations — where you live. The Columbia Journalism Review also has a thorough explanation of Who Owns What in the media.
As television station ownership gets consolidated, industry watchers are concerned the impact that will have on how these broadcasters use the Public Airwaves. Learn more about Media Ownership and other TV, Radio and Cable issues inside What's at Stake. Then Get Involved to fight for better media protect the public interest.