Stay Tuned For Fallout From FCC Decision On Ownership
By Melanie McFarland, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
June 8, 2003 - Sunday

You should definitely care about Monday's Federal Communications Commission decision to ease media ownership rules, for a number of reasons.

That's so obvious I should feel foolish for leading off with this statement. I guess I'm doing so because I haven't heard much of an outcry from Joe Couch Potato. Maybe the stakes haven't been laid out clearly enough.

If the ruling stands, a small number of companies could hold power over growing slices of the television landscape, affecting the information and variety of views you have access to.

As that pool of choices shrinks, the media giants grow.

The FCC action raised the cap on a single broadcast company's national reach from 35 percent of the viewing population to 45 percent.

Additionally, media companies will now be allowed to own both TV stations and newspapers in the largest markets, like Seattle. In the interest of full disclosure, this change could directly impact this employee of New York-based Hearst Corp., owner of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and majority stakeholder in Hearst-Argyle Television. Hearst has long been rumored to be interested in purchasing a television station in Seattle. All of this could affect your choices as a TV consumer, especially in term of local content.

That's why earlier this week, I asked readers to share their thoughts and concerns about the FCC's ruling. By the end of the day Wednesday, out of all my e-mails and calls, only three readers mentioned the decision.

The same number of people called or wrote in to ask when the second season of "Monk" was premiering. I'll answer that question straightaway: Friday, June 20. 10 p.m. USA Network.

But back to the subject at hand -- three e-mails?

Now, I know that lack of response doesn't reflect the concern of viewers at large. The FCC fielded hundreds of thousands of comments from the public, the majority urging the commission to keep the former regulations in place. But what value does public opinion have versus the millions of dollars media corporations spent in lobbying the FCC and the federal government? Not much, Monday's 3-2 vote in tells us -- which is interesting, because the airwaves the FCC regulates supposedly belong to you and me.

That said, I'll take a little correspondence over nothing, especially given the thoughts these readers had to share.

"I think this ruling is just 'another brick in the wall' toward that time envisioned in the (short-lived) television series ... 'M ... M ... M ... Max Headroom," wrote Tacoma resident Bill Duncan. "That fateful day when superpower nations are replaced by superpower corporations."

Bah! No need to worry about that, Bill. After all, FCC Chairman Michael Powell assures us the changes will actually make broadcast television more competitive, particularly with cable. Why bicker over the free airwaves since more than 80 percent of us pay for our TV news and entertainment anyway?

More competition -- what a load. Ostensibly that competition would be between the two corporations that stand to benefit the most from this -- Fox's parent company, News Corp. Inc., and CBS' parent company, Viacom Inc. Both reach about 40 percent of the viewing public as it is.

Now both can go for 5 percent more.

That doesn't bother Seattle's Susan Dennis. "I thought the world was going to end when they did away with the mandatory free air time for non-profits years and years ago," she said in an e-mail. "The world seems to have escaped major harm so I'm not getting corkscrewed about the Wacky Australian (Rupert Murdoch) buying up all my TV stations."

Hmm. Let's ponder that possibility for a moment. On the one hand, Fox and Fox News Channel on cable are both popular with viewers. On the other hand, who can handle all Fox, all the time? That's why we have different networks, competing for our eyes with different types of content. It's about the power of choice, a power we take for granted.

Now, what if the only sort of "variety" we could choose from was created, and signed off on, by Murdoch? What about our news? Could you imagine what would happen to our national discourse if newsmen like PBS' Jim Lehrer answered to Bill O'Reilly's boss?

At least as the ruling stands, no broadcaster, not even the "Wacky Australian," can own more than two of the top four rated stations in any market. However, they can own three stations in the biggest markets, up from two.

Already Dallas-based Belo Corp. owns KING/5, an NBC affiliate, and KONG/16, as well as Northwest Cable News. Fox affiliate KCPQ/13 and the WB's KTWB/22 are both owned by Chicago's Tribune Co. As for the rest, Atlanta-based Cox Broadcasting owns KIRO/7, the CBS affiliate, while KSTW/11, the UPN affiliate, belongs to Viacom.

KIRO shares its newscast with KSTW at 10 p.m., as KING does with KONG. Each station takes a markedly different approach to news, focusing on varying aspects of what makes Seattle unique. But even that focus on localism could be endangered by this ruling.

These are all things to think about, since Democrats hope to make the FCC's action a key issue in next year's political campaigns. A bipartisan congressional fight has begun, and the squabble will likely go to the courts.

So the discussion continues.

And my electronic mailbox remains open.