Think Tank Says Ownership Rules Harm Broadcasting

WASHINGTON D.C.: A former FCC bureau chief testified at the agency yesterday that its media ownership rules are hog-tying broadcasters.

“Are these ownership rules even relevant in today’s media marketplace?” said Ken Ferree, a senior fellow at the Progress & Freedom Foundation, a D.C. think tank supported by AT&T, CBS, NBC, Comcast, News Corp., Sony Entertainment and several other media and technology companies. “At the end of the day, these rules are only about who can own broadcast radio and television stations. But, I think, even the most hawkish foes of consolidation are beginning to realize that efforts to limit broadcast ownership are mis-focused.”

Broadcast TV and radio have been marginalized by the explosion of media forms, he said. Audience shares for both have deteriorated. Newspapers, also tied into ownership rules, are “increasingly irrelevant in the market,” he said in his written testimony.

“Unfortunately, it is traditional media that have historically carried the burden
when it comes to production of some of the most important content,” he said.

Rather than who should be allowed to own what media property where, regulators could be concerned about whether high-quality content will continue to be financially feasible. YouTube videos are quaint, but they’re not “CSI.”

“More importantly, real journalism costs real money,” he continued. “As I said when we were involved in this exercise in 2003, if you love journalists, you’ve got to love those who pay them to do their work.

“A free, active, and intelligent press corps is critical to a well functioning democracy, and there is no substitute for full-time, professional journalists on the beat. But somebody has to pay them, and it is less and less clear that any media organization--particularly those in the traditional media most concerned with the FCC’s ownership rules--will be able to attract a sufficient paying audience to sustain a robust
journalistic operation.”

Both local and national news organizations are shrinking while audiences continue to fragment.

“Which brings me back to my initial question--why are we fixating on the
appropriate ownership limits for broadcast properties?”

No one’s itching to buy more media properties for one thing. Disney, Time Warner, Viacom, News Corp. and Clear Channel have all shed divisions.

“In short, the age of broadcast media consolidation appears to be past--we are now squarely in the age of media fragmentation,” which could be riskier than consolidation in terms of public service.

“There is no tooth fairy leaving silver coins under the pillow to finance these efforts,” he said. “Broadcasting, as a service, is seriously threatened in this new media environment.

“Whatever the commission is going to do with regard to its ownership limits, it should do it quickly so that it can turn its attention to removing other regulatory burdens that continue to unnecessarily hamstring broadcast media.”