McAdams On: Factoring the Web into Media Ownership

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 mystery.

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.