The Coming Wave of Homogenized Media
In my first broadcasting job at a small town radio station, I worked for a man who genuinely believed in public service. I was a high school kid and the station manager made sure I clearly understood that the airwaves belonged to the public and we at the station had a serious obligation to serve that public.
He didn't hide behind a crafty media campaign designed to give the illusion of public service. He didn't count reading the news as a public service, either. To him, public service was very personal hands-on stuff. More than once at that radio station I helped find a listener's missing dog or raise money for a family that lost their home in a fire.
I know -- get over it -- those days are long gone. But I couldn't help but feel a bit sick to my stomach after the FCC's historic media ownership vote on June 2. I knew it was coming. As Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times "the fix has long been in." But it was still a bit of a shock to watch America's broadcast legacy-by a margin of one vote-handed over to a handful of media corporations to whom the phrase "public interest" is no more than a minor annoyance.
Fortunately, in the days preceding the vote, the FCC got some well-deserved scrutiny. The Center for Public Integrity made national news by revealing that FCC members and their staff had taken some 2,500 trips over the past eight years paid for by companies and trade groups from the broadcasting and telecommunications industries. These trips, to conferences and other events, cost some $2.8 million and took the regulators to the best hotels in Paris, Hong Kong, Rio de Janeiro, Palm Springs, and, of course, top-location Las Vegas, where a favorite is the well-appointed Bellagio Hotel.
Another study found that the FCC relies on reports and data supplied by the very parties they regulate. "The report is astonishing because it reveals more than ever before just how incestuous the relationship is between the Federal Communications Commission and the broadcasting and cable industries it is supposed to regulate," said Charles Lewis, of the Center for Public Integrity. "The idea that the FCC can render an objective, independent judgment about media ownership is laughable."
Lewis added that the study of the FCC "tells us more about the state of media ownership in America-and the impotence of federal regulators-than any other previous work."
OVER THE HORIZON
OK, so many agree the FCC is overdue for some major reform to eliminate these conflicts of interest. But, what now? Will FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein be proven correct that we're on the verge of a "tsunami" of media mergers because of "the most sweeping and potentially destructive overhaul of the FCC's media rules in the history of American broadcasting"?
I took a cue from Adelstein and asked a man with an uncannily accurate track record on predicting such matters. Ben Bagdikian, former dean of the School of Journalism at UC Berkeley, wrote a prescient book in 1983 called "The Media Monopoly." In the first edition, Bagdikian 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.
In an interview with TV Technology, Bagdikian said with the new rules he expects even more rapid consolidation. "The market is now going to decide that the big fish will swallow the little fish. I think the only real survivors in terms of audience size will be the biggest and most powerful media companies. And already that's a pretty small number. Smaller companies will see the juggernaut coming and will take the best offer they can."
I asked Bagdikian if he anticipated a public backlash over the lack of media diversity. "If there's ever a backlash, it's going to be very difficult," he responded. "One of the problems of consolidation is that the media becomes a single powerful voice and they establish what the average citizen knows or doesn't know. The other problem is that politicians are very fearful of media that can do them harm, or-the worst possible thing for a politician-not deal with them at all.
"Backlashes against that kind of power take an awful long time. In this case, it would take an entire generation. It would take something like a crash and depression, like what happened in the 1930s," he predicted. "Remember, these big companies are not going to compete. They'll try to be number one, obviously. But Ford does not want to compete to the death of General Motors. There's too much to lose."
Bagdikian said he knows of no technology on the horizon that could do an end run about the current mass media outlets. "There will be protests on the Internet, but the Internet isn't yet reliable. There's a lot of junk on the Internet and it can be monitored by the government. Using the Internet in a serious way is still sort of an elitist thing. It's not yet a mass communications system."
In the coming months, Bagdikian predicts the quick merging of newspapers, broadcasting and the Internet into single multimedia newsrooms, a resurgence of pirate radio broadcasting in local areas, and the continued gradual demise of over-the-air television broadcasting as video entertainment distribution shifts to multichannel pay services.
"[FCC Chairman] Powell makes the point there are more channels than ever," Bagdikian said. "And he's right. There are more channels, but guess who owns them? The same handful of big owners."
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Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.