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05.23.2003
Originally featured on BroadcastEngineering.com
FCC’s Adelstein predicts “a tsunami of mergers” after June 2

As a deeply split FCC approaches the June 2 deadline for the media ownership vote, Democratic members—expecting to be outvoted— are predicting an unprecedented wave of media consolidation.

It appears the three Republican members hold a single vote majority to create what Democratic FCC member Jonathan Adelstein calls "the most sweeping and potentially destructive overhaul of the FCC’s media rules in the history of American broadcasting."

In a speech last week to Washington, D.C.’s Media Institute, Adelstein described the recent media hearings — he called it the Magical Mystery Tour — that he and fellow Democratic commissioner Michael Copps held across the country.

“One of our participants, Ben Bagdikian, former dean of the School of Journalism at UC Berkeley, spoke before a packed audience at San Francisco’s City Hall. In 1983, when the first edition of his book The Media Monopoly was released, he wrote that 50 corporations dominated most of every mass medium. The number then dropped with each new edition to 29 firms in 1987, 23 in 1990, 14 in 1992 down to 10 in 1997. The 2000 edition found that just six conglomerates were supplying most of America’s media,” Adelstein noted.

“This trend will only accelerate after June 2nd,” he continued. “In fact, we’re likely to witness a tsunami of mergers...an unprecedented wave of consolidation. When this wave recedes, we’ll find far fewer media companies left standing...It’s principal victim may be our democracy.”

Adelstein said he’s not sure what the FCC is about to unleash, but predicted it might not be pretty. “We have in our hands a lit match, and we’re moving closer to a powder keg of public anger that may be about to explode.”

He specifically challenged FCC chairman Michael Powell’s often repeated notion that expanded media technology has made the old ownership rules obsolete.

“Despite the oft-repeated exhortation that technology has changed everything, a simple fact remains. No technological advances have made it possible for every person who wants to broadcast in a local community to do so,” he said. “We therefore must reaffirm that the public interest is served by promoting all three of the basic principles that form the foundation of American broadcasting system: localism, diversity, and competition...not just competition alone.”

Adelstein offered a warning. “You might call it the McDonaldization of the American media. McDonald’s spends a lot trying to give people what they want. They only put products out after expensive field-testing. Every product is analyzed to satisfy the greatest number of people, even if the local community may have its own unique tastes. Don't get me wrong, I like McDonalds, and eat there sometimes. But I don’t eat there every day. And even if I did, I know it wouldn’t be very healthy.

“The same goes for the media,” he continued. “People also need a balanced media diet...a diverse menu, if you will. But it’s a lot harder to set up a broadcast station than a new restaurant. Any of us with a few resources can open an alternative, say a health food store, right next to a fast food restaurant. But not just anybody can open a TV or radio station. In fact, those are nearly impossible businesses for upstarts to break into, and the barriers to entry may rise even higher after June 2nd.”

For the full text of Adelstein’s speech visit www.fcc.gov.

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