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Sunday, January 30

Reflections on Michael Powell  

Note: Dredging Google's cache of the FE, I came across this post on an op-ed of Michael Powell's from July 28, 2003.

Michael Powell makes one good point today. "Yet there is a distressing lack of consensus, and even some basic misunderstandings, over exactly what problem Congress is trying to solve." The rest of his opinion is a rambling attempt to refute the opposition to the FCC's recent rule change. He cites some statistics and zooms in and out from micro to macro perspectives of the national media marketplace. In the process he does more to discredit his own ambition to loosen national market ownership rules than to help it. Let's go to the videotape.

If the problem is lack of diversity among the media, then the fact is that the United States has the most diverse media marketplace in the world. There are more media outlets, owners, variety and diversity now than at any point in our nation's history. Moreover, our nation's media landscape will not become significantly more concentrated as a result of changes to the F.C.C. rules.

Powell plays a nice rhetorical game here. Has anyone said that diversity is a problem with media control? Perhaps, but the word "diversity" means many different things in many different situations. In the media realm it could connote the number of different owners, the size of owners, the race or gender of owners or the number of different media outlets controlled by an owner. As we shall see later, the word control is also very slippery in Mr. Powell's hands. In the final sentence of this graf, Powell makes a nice declarative but meaningless statement. "[O]ur nation's media landscape will not become significantly more concentrated as a result of changes to the F.C.C. rules." Says who? According to Powell this is true, but we know that since he's the one promoting the rule change. However, to blunt his critics, Powell throws in the universal qualifier of "significantly." Very serious and like-minded people can disagree about the meaning of that word. Its effect is to render this sentence meaningless.

Some say the problem is media concentration, and point out that only five companies control 80 percent of what we see and hear. In reality, those five companies own only 25 percent of more than 300 broadcast, satellite and cable channels, but because of their popularity, 80 percent of the viewing audience chooses to watch them. Popularity is not synonymous with monopoly. A competitive media marketplace must be our fundamental goal, but do we really want government to regulate what is popular?

Huh? Powell here diverges into a question nobody asked, or is asking. This is a Rumsfeldian quirk that seems to be seeping into other realms of this administration. One of the reasons I oppose the rule change is precisely what Powell states. That five companies control 80% of what the viewing audience chooses to watch. I don't want that number to climb any higher through mergers or cross-ownership. Powell points out that popularity is not synonymous with monopoly. That's true because the government prevents media companies from leveraging their popularity into monopoly by virtue of (among other things) the market cap. The piece now diverges into a truly risible screed.

Much of the pressure to restrict ownership, I fear, is motivated not by worries about concentration, but by a desire to affect content. And some proposals to reduce concentration risk having government promote or suppress particular viewpoints. The solution proposed by some in Congress is to rescind the ownership cap and restore the status quo. These are the same ownership rules that governed during the time of widespread public discontent with television. It is hard to see how the status quo will produce the results some in Congress say they want.

One harbinger of logical doom is when an author starts flinging pronouns with abandon. Who are these insidious "some" that seek to curtail our freedoms with their devious proposals? Powell doesn't tell us. The final sentence of this pronouns section is a masterpiece, "the reults some in Congress say they want." I defy you to explain what the fuck he is talking about.

Powell then drops his ultimate justification for forcing this rule change. Whenever he gets pressed on these issues, he pulls this bad-boy out. "Keeping the national ownership cap on television stations at 35 percent is also a rule previously struck down by the courts." He does not cite a case or the circumstances. Please, Mr. Powell, tell me the case so I can look it up and read just which court threw out the FCC's 35% national ownership restrictions. And if it threw out the 35%, why would that same court allow a 45% restriction?

Powell now throws in a little sleight of hand. "Yet not one of the four major networks (CBS, NBC, ABC or Fox) owns more than 3 percent of the nation's television stations." This is just disingenuous. While "technically true" (a favortie buzzterm in the administration of late) it seeks only to deceive. All four major networks as cited by Powell are themselves owned by gigantic conglomerates that in turn own massive amounts of media outlets. CBS=Viacom; NBC=GE; ABC=Disney; Fox=News Corp. These individual sites tout their media dominance to the investor.

Taking a right turn, Powell now concerns himself with the smaller markets in the country, and identifies an actual problem with FCC ownership rules.

In any case, the national cap does not limit the number of stations one can own; it limits only the number of people one can reach. If a company owns a handful of stations in populous markets like New York or Los Angeles, it will bump into the cap quickly. But if the stations are in smaller markets, it can own many more. This oddity is why so-called local affiliate groups own many more stations nationally than the networks. Fox Network, for example, is over the 35 percent cap with 35 stations, but Sinclair Broadcasting is well under the cap (at 14 percent) with 56 stations. One can see why many local broadcast groups support the national cap — it allows them to own more stations than the networks. It does not prevent a company with headquarters in Atlanta from owning stations in Muncie, Ind., no matter what numerical limit is drawn. Such has been the case for decades.

Does Powell propose to fix what is quite clearly an issue within the smaller markets of the country? Or does he feel that allowing companies to aquire even greater dominance in the rural areas of the country will actually help this problem? I don't know, he doesn't say. Somehow dominance in local markets by single owners is supposed to make us want these companies to get bigger.

"At the same time, the current debate has ignored a disturbing trend the new rules will do much to abate: the movement of high-quality content from free over-the-air broadcast television to cable and satellite." How will allowing the companies that own these large sections of the media to own a greater share of what we see induce them to put it on their free outlets and not their cable outlets? I just don't follow. Finally, Powell ends his descent into madness with this bit of dribble.

Quality prime-time viewing, long the strong suit of free television, has begun to erode, as demonstrated by HBO's 109 Emmy nominations this year. Indeed, for the first time ever, cable surpassed free TV in prime-time viewing share last year. If they can reach more of the market, broadcasters will be able to better compete with cable and satellite.

HBO is owned by AOL/TimeWarner. Have a little fun clicking on those divisions to see just how many companies AOL/TimeWaner owns. My favorite is Time, Inc. Tell me, Mr. Powell, if AOL gets to merge with Viacom, how will that allow CBS to take a bite out of HBO's 109 Emmy nominations?

All of this demonstrates that media ownership is no easy issue. When striving to promote the public interest, we must also honor the values of the First Amendment. That's why, following the 1996 mandate of Congress, the F.C.C. armed itself with the facts and spent an exhaustive amount of time and resources to strike this constitutionally important balance. Let's have a national debate, but let's keep it in focus.

A wonderful end to a litany of disingenuous twaddle.



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