Can We Restore Media Diversity?

There is no more important an issue on the agenda this new year than restoring the diversity of electronic media in the United States.
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There is no more important an issue on the agenda this new year than restoring the diversity of electronic media in the United States.

Media diversity is not only important to the well-being of people who depend on radio and television for the information that shapes their world view, but it's also critical to those--including the readers of TV Technology--who thrive on the use of the latest innovations in broadcasting.

After the federal courts undid FCC Chairman Michael Powell's handiwork of a couple of years ago, the media ownership rules issue is again before the FCC. It will be a replay of the same tug-of-war between a few conglomerates that want to control all electronic media and those that want a more diverse, decentralized and democratic media universe.

Candid views on media ownership from veteran broadcasters are rare. However, Ted Turner, a man of unique credentials on the subject, wrote a powerful article that appeared last summer in the Washington Monthly.

He minces no words. Perhaps that's why the article has been so widely circulated on the Internet in recent months as a "must-read" for those wanting to understand a complex subject.

Turner described how he created his media empire from two unprofitable television stations 35 years ago, a scenario he said would be impossible for him to repeat in today's economic environment.

In the article, "My Beef with Big Media," Turner said media giants now own not only broadcast networks and local stations, but the cable companies that pipe in the signals of their competitors and the studios that produce most of the programming.

"To get a flavor of how consolidated the industry has become, consider this: In 1990, the major broadcast networks--ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox--fully or partially owned just 12.5 percent of the new series they aired. By 2000, it was 56.3 percent. Just two years later, it had surged to 77.5 percent," he wrote.

Though Turner conceded big corporations had a role in developing media, he argued that small players bring the big ideas to the table.

"They are the independent thinkers," he said. "They know they can't compete by imitating the big boys--they have to innovate, so they're less obsessed with earnings than they are with ideas.

"They are quicker to seize on new technologies and new product ideas," he continued. "They steal market share from the big companies, spurring them to new approaches."

However, without proper FCC rules to maintain a fair playing field, healthy markets turn into sluggish oligopolies. That is happening today in media, Turner argued.

Today's large media corporations are more profit-focused and risk-averse.

"They often kill local programming because it's expensive, and they push national programming because it's cheap--even if their decisions run counter to local interests and community values. Their managers are more averse to innovation because they're afraid of being fired for an idea that fails."

Turner said he thought current FCC rules allowed "a dangerously high percentage" of what Americans see and don't see to be shaped by profit motives and the political interests of large, publicly traded conglomerates. This not only allows the economy to suffer, he said, but our public life as well.

"As a business proposition, consolidation makes sense," he noted. "The moguls behind the mergers are acting in their corporate interests and playing by the rules. We just shouldn't have those rules. They make sense for a corporation. But for a society, it's like overfishing the oceans.

"When the independent businesses are gone, where will the new ideas come from? We have to do more than keep media giants from growing larger; they are already too big. We need a new set of rules that will break these huge companies apart."

Yes, break up the media companies.

"Big media today wants to own the faucet, pipeline, water and the reservoir. The rain clouds come next," Turner said.

The only way to solve the problem is to reverse consolidation, he argued.

MURDOCH'S MOVES

Consolidation continues at blazing speed. Take one man, Rupert Murdoch. His News Corp. has grown in the United States at an explosive rate. In the course of only a few years, he has assembled a media empire that includes a major motion picture and television production studio, a chain of broadcast stations, the New York Post, the DirecTV satellite-to-home service, Fox News Channel and a host of other cable networks.

Prior to the Christmas holiday, Clear Channel Communications, the nation's largest radio station operator, picked Fox News Radio to be the primary source of national news for most of its news and talk stations. The deal could extend to 500 stations by the middle of this year.

What's disturbing is that the management of Clear Channel, operator of 1,200 stations, is a staunch supporter of right-wing causes.

Teaming with Fox News, also well-known for its conservative slant on reporting, allows these publicly licensed broadcasters enormous power to politically shape the news and information heard by millions of Americans. Any pretense of objectivity or localism is gone, and independent oversight to ensure editorial fairness is nonexistent.

For those that contend it's too late to break up the media cartels, Turner offered the reminder that Americans have done it before--from the railroad trusts in the early 20th century to Ma Bell in more recent times.

"Breaking up the reconstituted media conglomerates may seem like an impossible task when their grip on the policy-making process in Washington seems so sure," Turner said. "But the public's broad and bipartisan rebellion against the FCC's pro-consolidation decisions suggests something different. Politically, big media may again be on the wrong side of history--and up against a country unwilling to lose its independents."

The full text of Ted Turner's article can be read here.