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Ownership Caps Are No Picnic

In a recent issue of DigitalTV ["Localism Should Be A Picnic," July 2002], Jonathan Bellows discussed the debate between broadcasters and the NAB over station ownership caps. He disagreed with the NAB's position that localism is best served by maintaining current caps. It’s not ownership that hinders diversity, he argued, but rather lax enforcement of the "picnec"[more commonly known as "picnic"] rules, which require broadcasters to serve the Public Interest, Convenience, and NECessity.

The first part of Bellow’s argument, that current regulation does little to ensure a commitment to localism and diversity, is right on target. The history of the FCC is full of failed and misguided regulations. Consider the Prime Time Access Rule, which limited the number of hours a station could broadcast network-sponsored programming in the top 50 markets. Designed to encourage local programming, the rule instead led to cheap syndicated game shows as well as increased commercial clutter during primetime, as the networks scrambled to make up for lost revenue. Such outcomes demonstrate why station ownership caps designed to protect local interests and promote diverse content have for the most part failed to achieve that goal. Whether controlled by a large corporation or a small one, broadcasters are driven by profit, not public service.

Which is why Bellow’s solution—a clear definition of and consistent support for the picnic rules—is bound to fail. Just as a repeal of ownership caps would have little impact upon content, so would enforcement of the archaic and incomprehensible picnic rules. Instead, it’s time to revisit how we look at the media and its role in society. Relying on rules and regulations formulated during the early days of radio won’t suffice. What’s needed is a new approach to media and communications policy, a new foundation to which new regulations can be applied. Instead of blind deregulation or the same old doomed regulations, we need to reregulate, revamping the system to ensure a diversity of opinion and thought.

You may be wondering why this concept called reregulation is being discussed in a magazine devoted to digital television and whether it is even feasible to consider. To address the former query, consider the estimated $70-billion value of the digital spectrum given to broadcasters. How that spectrum is used and whom it benefits are important questions yet to be sufficiently answered. As for the feasibility of reregulation, it’s quite easy to dismiss it as unrealistic, especially given our acceptance of the current system. But before you turn the page, consider some of the myths we take for granted that drive our understanding and beliefs:

Myth #1: Our broadcasting system is the natural result of a free and democratic society.
Today’s system is a product of yesterday’s decisions. And perhaps no decision was as instrumental in deciding the future of electronic media than the agreement between the patent allies and the government that led to the creation of RCA and set the U.S. on the course toward a corporate and commercial media system. While questioning such a system may seem heretical today, there was a time when it could have turned out differently. Even after the Radio Act of 1927 was passed (thanks to the prodding of corporate interests) debate continued both in public and in Congress as to who should control the radio spectrum. It wasn’t until the Communications Act of 1934 was passed that commercial interests won out, sealing not only the fate of the radio industry, but also that of each subsequent medium.

Myth #2: The picnic rules were designed to ensure that the public was best served.
One of the requirements of the 1927 Radio Act was that licensees operate their stations “in the public convenience, interest and necessity,” later changed to “the public interest, convenience and necessity” in the Communications Act of 1934. This requirement was not designed for the new medium of radio but rather was borrowed from the railroad industry. Yet it still remains the standard by which all broadcasters are judged. While convenience, necessity, and maybe even interest may make sense when applied to the railroads, the phrase is vague; ripe for conflicting interpretations when applied to broadcasting. When then-FCC Commissioner Powell stated in a 1998 speech that he was “without a clue” when it came to the public interest, what hope do we have that it will be applied appropriately and equitably?

Myth #3: The trusteeship model of broadcasting is irrelevant.
The trusteeship model of broadcasting assumes that since the broadcast spectrum is both limited and owned by the public, those entrusted with it must be responsive to the local and national community. However, since the early 1980s, the trusteeship model has been replaced by the market model, where commercial success is equated with public service and responsiveness. Under the market model, the FCC’s role is no longer to regulate but instead to act as what then-Chairman Kennard labeled a “market facilitator.” But the market model has one glaring flaw. Commercial success does not come to those broadcasters who best serve the public. Instead it comes to those broadcasters who provide the audience most desired by advertisers. Thus the true “market” in the market model is the advertiser, not the public.

These are just a few of the myths that we’ve grown accustomed to accepting. There are many others, from the way we look differently at cable and terrestrial broadcasters, to the definitions we use when thinking about diversity. Reregulation doesn’t mean that we need to scrap all our beliefs, but it does require us to consider what could be instead of what is. It’s really not that radical, nor is it that unattainable. All it requires is accepting the important role and responsibility we all share.

Bryan Green is an advertising instructor and doctoral candidate at Syracuse University, as well as principal, Green Mountain Consulting, specializing in media research in the film and television industries.   Print Page