McAdams On: Factoring the Web into Media Ownership
7/22/2010 4:51:18 PM
Just how do you factor the Internet into media
ownership? That’s the question before regulators once again preparing to rewrite
the rules governing media ownership in the United States. The current
rules--such as they are--apply to newspapers, TV and radio stations. No single
company can own too many media properties in a given market. The assumption is
that monopolized, corporate media ownership leads to a vicarious diminution of
the First Amendment. I.e., “freedom of the press” would apply to one guy. One
white guy, to be exact. Rare is the media
corporation headed up by a woman or a minority.
Media ownership rules are intended to protect and promote the speech of women,
minorities and anyone else who doesn’t own media. In FCC parlance, to promote
“competition, localism and diversity.” To what extent that actually occurs is a
According to the FCC’s own data, quoted here by Commissioner Michael Copps, “there
has been a 39 percent decrease in the number of commercial radio station owners
between 1996 and 2010. In addition, we have seen a 33 percent decrease in the
number of television station owners over that same time period.”
The questionable efficacy of media ownership rules is why they get batted
around in court like a ball of yarn at a cat festival. That, and media
corporations can afford all the lawyers in the known solar system, while the
FCC pays scale.
Every rewrite is challenged in court as a matter of course. The last tweak in December of 2007 relaxed
the newspaper-TV/radio cross-ownership prohibition. That tweak is still being
contested, even as the FCC launches its quadrennial review of the rules. The
commission has left out the Internet up to now, mostly because it can’t make ownership
rules for traditional media stick.
Throwing in the Internet will mean certain chaos. How in the world can you create
a metric for its “competition, localism, and diversity” value? There is no
blanket localism to the Internet. It would have to be determined market by
market. And diversity? Is that supposed to reflect each community, or include
non-U.S. based cultures? Google doesn’t bring up a lot of international results
here in Los Angeles.
Competition is the one ownership criteria that bears some degree of
measurability. Audience measurement technology is becoming more sophisticated
all the time, though it can’t keep up with the explosion of distribution form
factors. Just how many people are watching KNBC-TV’s evening news at any one
time on TV, online, via Slingbox, on a Blackberry, an iPhone, iPod, iPad and
who knows what all... is yet to be determined.
The folks at the FCC shouldn’t despair if they get media ownership rules wrong
again. There doesn’t seem to be any clear way to get them right.