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FCC plan would allow big companies to own more media outlets

In a world with hundreds of cable channels and thousands of websites, it must sound as quaint as talk about VHS players and Walkmans to worry about how many media outlets any one company gets to own.

But even in a media landscape with countless options, the nation's biggest media companies also control our biggest TV stations, radio outlets and online destinations, wielding an influence that can be magnified far beyond the actual platforms they own.

In the Tampa Bay market, just three companies — Clear Channel, CBS Radio and Cox Radio — own 20 radio stations, including the top 16 outlets reaching more than 80 percent of people listening in November's ratings period.

And some of media's biggest websites, from the Huffington Post to the Drudge Report, are built around "aggregating" stories already reported by other news outlets, allowing the New York Times or Wall Street Journal to echo across a wider swath of the Internet than you might imagine.

That's why it is big news that a Democrat-dominated Federal Communications Commission may relax ownership rules critics fear could allow titans such as News Corp. owner Rupert Murdoch to buy up bigger chunks of the media landscape.

The changes, involving whether a single company can own a newspaper and a TV station or radio station in the same market, could allow Murdoch to add newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times or Chicago Tribune to an empire that includes the New York Post, Fox News Channel and Tampa Fox affiliate WTVT-Ch. 13.

Amid protests from lawmakers and advocacy groups such as Free Press, the FCC put off changing the rules at least until January 2013, giving the public more time to comment on the agency's minority ownership report, which found just 3.6 percent of TV stations and 8 percent of radio stations were owned by people of color.

Already, some of the biggest outlets focused on people of color are owned by big corporations such as Viacom (BET), NBC Universal (the Grio) and AOL (the Huffington Post's Black Voices).

If the FCC allows big companies to buy more outlets, are minority ownership percentages likely to increase? And if they remain unaffected, why isn't the FCC suggesting rules changes that might help that situation?

Critics fear the agency plans to vote on the rules changes in private with limited public information on their plans. Free Press alleged the rules changes could allow one company to own the major daily newspaper, two TV stations, eight radio stations and the major Internet provider in one community.

FCC media bureau chief Bill Lake has pushed back, noting that the agency has held six public workshops beginning in 2009 and that new rules would continue to limit one company from owning more than one of the top four TV stations in any market.

It's a complex issue. And tough to parse, given that so much of the language describing this stuff seems written for those with a degree in legalese.

Part of the problem may be the lack of news coverage itself. Media ownership isn't the sexiest topic and some of the biggest media companies in the country have a vested interest in seeing ownership rules relaxed.

When Republican FCC chair Kevin Martin considered similar changes in 2007, all five commissioners came to a public hearing held in downtown Tampa at the auditorium now known as the Straz Center.

Hundreds packed the place, ensuring lots of media coverage. And though the then-GOP-dominated FCC approved the changes along party lines, a subsequent court ruling knocked them down for a lack of public notice.

In contrast, the Tampa FCC hearing on these latest changes, held in 2010, took place at the University of South Florida's Marshall Student Center, far from the city's downtown, with a shorter scheduled time. It featured no commissioners.

I wrote back then it felt like the session was in the witness protection program.

One reason hearings were located here (the unique cross-ownership situation where Media General owned NBC affiliate WFLA-Ch. 8 and the Tampa Tribune) ended when Media General sold off its newspapers, unable to find success in TV/newspaper synergy. That may also hold a lesson.

Oddest of all, this is happening with a Democrat-dominated FCC during the administration of a president who promised as a candidate in 2008 to "encourage diversity in the ownership of broadcast media." According to the Tampa Bay Times' factchecking site PolitiFact, President Barack Obama broke that promise.

It's worth remembering that the ownership rules change allowing Clear Channel to swallow the nation's radio system also was passed by a Democrat-dominated FCC during Bill Clinton's administration.

Old fashioned as it may seem, it might be time for us all to start paying attention to this issue just a little bit closer.

FCC plan would allow big companies to own more media outlets 12/09/12 [Last modified: Sunday, December 9, 2012 3:30am]

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