Adelstein Warns of 'Super-Sized' Media

The newest FCC Commissioner said the upcoming revision of media ownership rules will quickly bring on waves of station purchases by big players, but the nation's citizens and democracy itself will be the ones suffering the after-effects of the "McDonaldization" of media.

He also warned of a regulatory backlash, suggesting that the public might demand more government intervention as media companies become more and more powerful.

Jonathan Adelstein, who along with fellow Democrat Michael Copps has tried to publicize the media ownership issue and delay the FCC's June 2 vote, said that the expected changes to the rules fly in the face of public opinion and will spur drastic changes in the nation's media

"I'm not sure that we know what we're about to unleash," he told luncheon guests of the Media Institute in Washington May 20. "We're likely to witness a tsunami of mergers; an unprecedented wave of consolidation. As this wave recedes, we'll find far fewer media companies left standing."

Adelstein said that nearly all of 137,000 comments from individuals to the commission urged against relaxing the rules, a sentiment he said he experienced again and again in public forums around the country.

"Of the hundreds of citizens I heard from ... not one person stood up to say, 'I want to see even more consolidation in our media ownership.' Not one," he said. "Virtually none of the public says, 'Please, let big media companies get bigger. I can't wait to see what they'll do with those economies of scale.'"

Opponents to relaxing the rules range from the NRA to Tom Petty and from Barry Diller to Pearl Jam, he said, noting that no less a pillar of free-market ideology than "Moneyline," the CNN show hosted by Lou Dobbs, instigated an online poll asking whether too few corporations own too many media outlets. Of those who responded, 98 percent opposed further consolidation.

"Americans instinctively hold a deep hostility to big media," Adelstein said. "It violates every tenet of a democratic society to let a handful of powerful companies control the nation's media."

He said he couldn't imagine anything that would cause FCC Chairman Michael Powell to delay the June 2 decision, as nearly 100 members of Congress have requested.

What's more, said Adelstein, the public is getting increasingly unhappy with the sensationalism, sex, violence, absentee ownership, negligence of local issues and homogeneity from big corporate media. The last thing most people want is the government regulating the media content; but Adelstein warned of citizen anger boiling over into a drive for federal action.

"Use any increased efficiencies that you get very wisely," he warned potential consolidators.

Adelstein likened the consolidation path to the growth of McDonald's restaurants. In fast-food, he said, free-market forces are just great; there's always another place to eat for those who want to visit McDonald's less often than every day. But broadcasting, as a limited resource critical to democracy, should be treated differently, he said.

Adelstein's alarm is a contrast to the comfort level among the commission's Republican majority. Powell and Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy have said the public record is sufficient and the issue is ready for vote June 2. Abernathy said recently she agrees with most of the draft proposal, which has not yet been formally released.

"I'm afraid the FCC isn't only about to further McDonaldize the media, we're about to super-size it," Adelstein said. "Once we place our order on June 2, we have to digest what comes our way. The public may be about to experience a giant Maalox moment."

The ownership debate continued to heat up May 22 with the second hearing on the issue in as many weeks by the Senate Commerce Committee. Longtime Powell nemesis Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) said the expected rules would lead to "fewer creative outlets for independent TV and content producers; higher ad rates for large and small businesses; fewer antagonistic sources of news and opinion, less air time for local politicians and community groups, and a growing reluctance of local station operators to take on network executives in rejecting nationally-produced programming that violates community standards."

Common Cause said a celebrity-fueled petition to delay the vote had accumulated 161,000 signatures.