The FCC should not turn its quadrennial media ownership rule review into a referendum on the state of the media marketplace in general, said Media Access Project president Andrew Schwartzman during an agency media ownership workshop Tuesday featuring a panel of public-interest group representatives.
Broadcasters have argued that the tanking economy and competition from the Internet and other sources should be factored into the FCC equation of whether duopoly rules or cross-ownership rules are still necessary in the public interest, which is the standard of review.
Schwartzman averred that since the FCC generally relies on complaints from the public in deciding whether to renew a license--there is no longer a comparative renewal process--the commission cannot expect the public to "test, much less challenge, claims based on market share, advertising revenues, cumulative circulation and so on."
He pointed out that the FCC has hired Beliefnet's Steve Waldman to head up an assessment of the media marketplace to "to craft recommendations to meet the traditional goals of serving the public interest and making sure that all Americans receive the information, educational content, and news they seek."
That, said Schwartzman, is where the broader issues of localism and competition from the Web, cable and other outlets should get a full vetting. Schwartzman conceded that while localism must be part of the conversation, "this is not the place for a full-blown inquiry into localism issues." That inquiry, he said, would "bog down the Quadrennial Review in a gargantuan policy debate which would likely result in a conclusion that no such alternative could be adopted."
Schwartzman said what should be part of the quadrennial review is a study of the impact on ownership diversity of relaxing regulations, including asking how quickly the FCC can collect more and better data.
He also said the FCC needs to look at shared services agreements, which he says are an evasion of the local ownership rules, and the UHF discount, which he says has been rendered obsolete by the DTV transition. Station owners only get charged with half the audience for a UHF station when it comes to national audience ownership limits.