Remaking the rules on media ownership

Court: Ruling paves the way for more permissive cross-ownership across the media spectrum.

February 21, 2002

OLD RULES DIE HARD, but the ones that have regulated media cross-ownership since the dawn of television decades ago now finally appear to be on their last legs.

All the better, since the prohibitions against companies operating different types of media outlets have almost no relevance in this age of instant information, proliferating niche markets and a dizzying array of consumer choices.

The rules that bar cross-ownership arguably do more to prevent media diversity than aid it. Government regulation is no friend of the market or the consumer here.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia quickened the pace of change on this front this week when it held that the Federal Communications Commission must revisit rules that bar a network from owning too many stations and prevent cable operators from owning television stations.

The ruling, should it stand, could pave the way for several mergers reported to be in the works. It would also likely pressure the FCC to waive other cross-ownership rules being reconsidered, such as the ones that prevent companies from owning newspapers and television stations in the same market. (Tribune Co., which owns The Sun as well as other newspapers and radio and television stations, could benefit from such a ruling.)

Critics of the shift toward consolidation raise some important concerns.

They say consolidation of ownership would mean a loss of diverse voices.

They say that in particular, mergers between television and newspaper companies could diminish the quality of print journalism, leaving consumers without the in-depth information they need to be good citizens.

But the idea of several monotoned media conglomerates denying voice to dissenters is in reality no more than an apparition -- a ghost being used to spook people into preserving unnecessary government oversights. The proof? Look at what has happened in the last 15 years.

Even as media mergers and acquisitions have reduced the number of owners, access to information has become easier, cheaper, faster and more plentiful.

Instead of three network television stations with thrice-a-day newscasts, Americans have a bounty of cable news networks that broadcast around the clock.

Instead of relying solely on newspapers for substantive, in-depth news and analysis, consumers now have myriad choices on the Internet (unheard of 15 years ago) and an ever-expanding base of magazines and other periodicals that focus intently on specific content areas.

The reasons for this paradoxical consolidation in ownership and explosion in choices are complicated but undeniable.

Advances in technology and the increased splintering of the reading and viewing audiences have forced media owners to think beyond a single method of delivery for information.

The drive for profits also plays a role. Large, publicly traded companies can't easily make the profits they need simply publishing newspapers or operating cable outfits or television stations.

They need the cross-marketing opportunities and cooperation derived from ownership of different kinds of properties.

In that way, consolidation is more likely to preserve choice than it is to destroy it.

Is it possible that consolidation could careen out of control and begin to assimilate the diversity of messages now available?

Of course it is. But in the absence of any evidence that is happening, government regulation should take a back seat to free-market checks and balances.

This week's Washington, D.C., court ruling could be challenged and overturned by the Supreme Court, but that would be a shame.

A better course would be for the FCC to revise ownership rules to make them help create and preserve the media choices we have -- not hinder their survival.

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