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The present media environment is being shaped by two seemingly contradictory trends: on the one hand, the digital revolution has lowered the costs of content production and distribution and greatly expanded the range of available channels to deliver it. At the same time, there has been an alarming concentration of the ownership of mainstream commercial media, with a small handful of multinational media conglomerates dominating all sectors of the entertainment industry.

The tension between these two seemingly contradictory trends is coming to a head as the Federal Communications Commission debates lifting longstanding restrictions on media ownership. Under review are rules which prohibit a network from owning stations that broadcast to more than 35 percent of American homes, prevent a media conglomerate from owning two or more broadcast networks, restrict newspapers from owning television stations in the same market, or limit how many television stations the same company can own in any given market. FCC chairman Michael Powell argues that such restrictions have outlived their usefulness, given the diminished place of broadcasting in an era of cable television, videotape, game systems, and the Internet. FCC Commissioner Michael Copps disagrees, warning that lowering restrictions on media ownership will increase media concentration: “There is the potential here to remake our entire media landscape, for better or for worse, for a long time to come.” 

Who’s right?  It all depends on how you define diversity.

Powell and his allies imagine a world without gatekeepers, where consumers are free to search across a range of different media for the kinds of entertainment and information they desire.  FCC-commissioned studies released last month found that the range of different genres offered by broadcast and cable television had increased despite concentration of media ownership. There have been dramatic increases in almost every category of media-more hours of news, documentary, and children’s programming than when these rules were first passed. We have moved from a world dominated by three major networks to an era of 200 plus cable channels. There are about 3,500 more commercial radio stations and 670 more commercial television stations now than there were in 1970.  Online bookstores and newspapers make it possible to access a broader range of public opinion than ever before. The range of titles available to consumers at local video stores or record shops keeps increasing at an astonishing rate. 

Copps and his allies, on the other hand, argue that this expansion in quantity hasn’t necessarily translated into improvements in quality. Where Powell speaks of genre diversity, they speak of viewpoint diversity. Where Powell emphasizes consumers, they emphasize citizens. Where Powell focuses on entertainment, they focus on news and public affairs.  Where Powell embraces market forces, they demonstrate a deep distrust of popular culture.  The Consumer Federation of America, one of a number of groups lobbying against deregulation, warned against determining cultural policy based purely on commercial values, fearing “a tyranny of the majority in which minority, unpopular, and noncommercial points of view are squeezed out.” They continue, “The existence of multiple outlets providing more examples of similar shows does not accomplish the goal of providing greater diversity of points of view.”  Mark Crispin Miller speaks of an American “monoculture,” where there are many options and no real difference between them.

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