Federal Communications Commission member Jonathan Adelstein last Tuesday blasted changes to broadcast-ownership rules proposed by FCC chairman Michael Powell, claiming they would trigger a wave of media mergers opposed by the public.
"We're likely to witness a tsunami of mergers — an unprecedented wave of consolidation," Adelstein said in a speech to the Media Institute, where the audience included plenty of lobbyists from corporations that favor Powell's plan.
'A lit match'
Adelstein, a Democrat, claimed that public opinion strongly opposes more media consolidation. Were the FCC to relax the rules too much, he warned, the public might soon insist that the agency impose content safeguards and other regulatory steps to combat sex and violence on TV.
"We have in our hands a lit match, and we're moving closer to a powder keg of public anger that may be about to explode," Adelstein said.
On June 2, the Republican-controlled FCC is expected to vote on a plan that would allow one company to own three TV stations in the largest markets and two TV stations in the other markets. The plan is also expected to largely abolish the ban on ownership of a newspaper and a TV station or a radio station in the same market.
Congress ordered the FCC to review the rules every two years, and to modify or repeal those that are no longer in the public interest as a result of competition. A federal court has vacated one rule and remanded at least two more because the FCC failed to comply with the law.
In his speech, Adelstein also questioned a proposal to allow TV station groups to reach 45% of all U.S. TV households, up from 35%. At a minimum, he said, the cap should not be raised before the FCC studies its effects on independent programmers, which complain they are having trouble selling shows to the four major broadcast networks.
Adelstein also highlighted problems with raising the 35% cap without changing the so-called UHF discount, which counts two UHF TV households as one for purposes of the 35% cap. In theory, a company with nothing but UHF stations could reach 90 percent of TV households under a 45% cap.
Since many UHF stations use cable systems to reach viewers, Adelstein argued that the rationale for the UHF discount — namely, that UHF stations lack have the power to reach as many homes as VHF stations — has largely disappeared.
"If the whole purpose of this exercise is to update our rules in light of technological developments, we cannot ignore some just because we don't like the outcome of more stringent limits," Adelstein said.
Tauzin: be flexible
Last Wednesday, Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), the House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, sent a letter urging his colleagues not to support a bill (HR 2052) that would require the FCC to retain the 35% cap.
"Chairman Powell has repeatedly articulated throughout this process the need to provide evidence and a rationale that will pass judicial muster. Do not take away the FCC's ability to do its job. Oppose legislation that ties the FCC's hands and prevents it from ensuring that the laws accurately reflect the realities of the mass media marketplace," Tauzin said.