Over the past two decades not only how Americans watch television, and what they watch has changed, but who owns the medium has shifted significantly. From the early days of the medium right through the 1980’s, corporate ownership and influence determined much of what Americans saw on their home television sets. While government mandated “public affairs” television was included in the choice of programming, and public television came into existence, both were a minor part of the fare viewers were offered. When Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, television, along with radio and newspapers, experienced a dramatic shift in the composition of its ownership and, by effect, the type of programming viewers would see as well as the perspective of the news that would come into the households of millions of Americans.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the federal agency charged with oversight and regulation of the nation’s media, is conducting its quadrennial review of five of its media ownership rules: the local television ownership rule, the local radio ownership rule, the newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership rule, the radio/television cross-ownership rule, and the dual network rule. The national television multiple ownership rule was excluded from the quadrennial review when Congress amended the Telecommunications Act of 1996 in 2004.
The quadrennial review of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 comes at a time when the dissemination of information is changing due to the Internet and another major media acquisition, the purchase of NBC Universal by Comcast is under consideration. While many Americans pay little attention to the ownership of the medium behind the “picture,” the composition of media owners is an important consideration for the development of an enlightened citizenry and democratic participation. If ownership is narrowly constructed, and limited to a handful of powerful interests, the impact on the nation’s values and politics is profound. Such considerations matter, in not only the delivery of news programming but also the type of entertainment programming that is offered, particularly shows targeting children and youth.
The FCC’s ownership rules are built upon three policy priorities: competition, localism and diversity. The Commission is now seeking public comment on the current media ownership rules as it seeks to determine if changes are necessary to better achieve its policy priorities. It is an opportunity for the public and organizations to engage on the important issue of media ownership and shape telecommunications policy.
In the area of competition, the FCC is seeking input on how to define competition in today’s media marketplace. In trying to determine performance measures, the Commission notes that it is interested not in the performance of particular firms (media owners) but in the geographic markets. The Commission is interested in whether consumers are getting the type of content they want from broadcast media. One area of inquiry that has relevance to Black owned media outlets is competition in advertising markets. The FCC is also looking for comment on the best way to measure consumer satisfaction among particular demographic groups, including racial and ethnic minorities.
As it considers its policy goal of “localism,” the FCC invites comments on how media ownership affects localism and what performance measures should be used to determine the impact of its rules on local communities. The Commission’s regulatory structure has been designed with the intent of creating a system of local stations that provide programming that is responsive to the concerns and interests of local audiences within the outlets service area. One of the growing concerns is that the information needs of local communities are being abandoned in the media acquisition frenzy that has occurred in the wake of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. In its My 25, 2010 Notice of Inquiry, the FCC makes reference to the two measures that it has relied upon to determine whether broadcast licensees are meeting their local programming requirements: (1) the selection of programming responsive to local needs and interests of broadcasters’ communities of license, and (2) local news quantity and responsiveness. A new consideration for the FCC is the development of local news websites targeting specific communities, and whether they should be factored into the policy goal of localism, from original content produced to the repurposing and aggregation of content from other news sources.
Perhaps the most significant policy goal that the FCC now seeks comment is that of diversity. The Commission notes that it has historically considered media diversity from five perspectives – program diversity, viewpoint diversity, source diversity, outlet diversity and minority and female ownership diversity. All five perspectives are critically important to the inclusion of Black Americans’ opinions, values, history and culture in the nation’s social consciousness. For example, the FCC is seeking comment on the question of whether increased completion among independently owned media ownership always lead to increased program diversity. The Commission is also asking the public to consider the impact of the media’s market structure on the availability of public interest programming, such as programs targeting children and protections for children against excessive and inappropriate commercial messages. In examining media ownership, the FCC notes a previous study that found while minorities comprise 34% of the nation’s population, they own only 3.15% of full power commercial television stations and 7.7% of full power commercial radio stations. Those figures are for “minorities” in total so the proportion of Black ownership is infinitely smaller. The Commission is also seeking comment on the perceived and real impact of the relaxation of media ownership mandated by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 on minority and female ownership of radio stations. In addition, the FCC wants public opinion on whether the structural media ownership rules have an effect on broadcast ownership by minorities, women, and small businesses.
Since the Telecommunications Act was signed into law, the impact on the media ownership landscape has been profound. Companies such as Clear Channel, already a significant owner of media prior to the Act, became a behemoth as it gobbled up radio station after station across the country. In addition to radio ownership, Clear Channel also has a significant stake in billboard advertising in major media markets. The News Corporation, the media conglomerate owned by new-American, formerly Australian citizen Rupert Murdoch, also took advantage of the relaxation of media ownership rules and its presence in New York City is a prime example of what many critics of the Act feared would occur. In the New York media market, the nation’s largest, the News Corporation’s imprint can be seen in its ownership of a major local daily newspaper, The New York Post, two local broadcast television stations, WNYY Fox 5 and WWOR, and two “national” outlets, the Fox News Channel on the cable dial and the Wall Street Journal, a newspaper that recently introduced a Metro section focused on the city.
For the Black community, the issue of media ownership has always been cross-referenced against measures of social progress. For many decades, the Black press stood as the source of news and information during the height of Jim Crow and the southern resistance to racial equality, as well as the movement for economic equity in northern states. Local Black owned radio outlets played a similar role in the 1960’s and 1970’s, chronicling the civil rights movement and the blossoming of Black elected officials, while also giving Black recording artists a platform for their music. Two magazines, Ebony and Jet, owned by Chicago based Johnson Publishing Company, provided constant coverage of the Black rights struggle and celebrated Black success against the tide of daily abuse. The white or so-called “mainstream” media also figured prominently as the exposure of the abusive nature of Jim Crow enraged many Americans living outside of the South as well as the international community. The decision by editors at some major daily newspapers and network television to present graphic images of Blacks who were bloodied in the non-violent civil rights campaign challenged the nation’s conscience.
Today, the determination of who is delivering information to the Black community and how continues to be a point of much discussion and debate. The birth of Black Entertainment Television (BET) in the 1980’s was seen as a turning point in the use of television to inform the community. As government mandates for public affairs television disappeared, many of the local shows in urban markets that focused on the Black community vanished. The creation of BET was viewed by many as a possible platform for news and information, and in its early days the network, conceived by cable executive Robert Johnson, did a commendable job in filling that niche. However, over time, BET’s programming grid swayed toward entertainment, some of it considered to be culturally offensive, and today the cable network is now struggling to regain its credibility in the public affairs space. Famed trial attorney Willie Gary sought to launch a Black cable network but met with limited success and the channel was eventually dissolved. Radio pioneer and entrepreneur Cathy Hughes joined forces with Comcast and created TV One, a cable network that is a direct competitor to BET and has a minimal public affairs profile. Against this backdrop, there have been numerous websites, including NorthStarNews.com, that have emerged to fill the vacuum of news delivery to the Black community but collectively their audiences have a ways to go to match the penetration of a single television or radio outlet.
The current FCC Notice of Inquiry is open for public comment on or before July 12, 2010. Reply to comments are due on or before July 26, 2010.