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.
These critics can be antidemocratic in their dismissal of popular taste, puritanical in their attempts to link media concentration to the increases of sex and violence in the media, narrow in their own conception of what constitutes diversity, shortsighted in their grasp of the expanded media environment. Powell brags about going home to watch Cartoon Network with his kids; these guys brag that they don’t even own a television. They almost certainly exaggerate the degree of uniformity within corporate media, seeing media conglomerates as well oiled machines that always pursue and achieve their common interests rather than dysfunctional families that cannot seem to find ways to collaborate across media sectors.
Yet, they may also be substantively right in their assertion that deregulation will result in a dangerous level of media concentration. When restrictions on the ownership of radio stations were lifted in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, global communications giant Clear Channel gobbled up stations nationwide. Before deregulation, they owned 40 stations. Today, they own 1,225. And by all reports, Clear Channel has narrowed the range of music and rigidified the format at every station they took over. Even with current ownership restrictions, media concentration is occurring at an alarming rate. Three-quarters of all cable networks are owned by six corporate entities, four of which are major television networks. The major broadcast networks own outright 3/4 of all the programming they air. Even many free-market Republicans-conservative columnist William Safire and Republican Senator John McCain for example-are staggered by the rate of media concentration and reluctant to abandon regulatory tools that might contain it.
Powell is right that new media is producing enormous diversity, albeit at the fringes, and Copps is right that media concentration is resulting in a narrowing of diversity at the center. Contemporary media culture is anything but a “monoculture,” yet that doesn’t mean that media concentration can be treated with indifference.
For the moment, let’s suppose that Powell is right, that diversity is out there, somewhere, in the much more complex media landscape that has emerged over the past two decades. Let us also assume that the diversity of the Internet will continue to expand, rather than contract, which seems to be happening right now. Then the issue shifts from one of diversity to one of access.
Powell is proposing a compensatory model: even if deregulation results in a concentration of ownership over broadcast media, consumers will be able to locate content which more fully serves their needs through cable or the Internet. Here, Powell echoes the let them eat cable’ model of free-market ideologue George Gilder who contrasts the “tyranny” of centralized broadcasting and its lowest-common-denominator content, with “first choice” media like the Internet, where different niche groups receive content that more perfectly reflects their tastes and interests. The smaller the niche market, the greater the responsiveness of content providers to minority tastes. What’s wrong with this picture?
In practice, the current media environment is a hybrid of the two scenarios. While the range of media options has expanded and the viewership of network broadcasting diminished, the age of big media is hardly over. Alternative media options fragment the audience, whereas most consumers watch at least some network programming. If the Internet consists of a billion people on a billion soap boxes, the power to define broadcast content is to determine which ideas will be the most widely circulated and most readily accessed. In such a context, it still matters who’s making those programming decisions and still worth fighting to get alternative messages onto broadcast networks. Media concentration may amplify broadcaster’s power by turning local radio, cable television, even the Web into relay stations for their content.
If Powell is right, then the Web expands access to national and international perspectives, cutting down on the role of geography in defining access to information. But what happens to local news? What happens when Clear Channel does to local television what it has already done to local radio? Researchers have found that the amount of local news diminishes when media outlets are owned by national rather than local companies. Fewer and fewer of us vote in local elections because we can’t find even find the names of the candidates or where they stand on issues.
If Powell is right, the greatest diversity will exist in “pull” media, which we must actively search out; the least will be in “push” media, which reaches out and grabs our attention. The greatest diversity will exist in pay media, the least in free media. So, what percentage of Americans will be left out in the cold if, say, the bulk of children’s and educational programming shifts off network and onto cable television? Twenty-six percent of American children have no access to cable television. What percentage of Americans will receive little or no benefit from the media diversity represented by cyberspace? Only 45 percent of children from low-income houses (under $15,000 per year) have any access to the Internet and less than 25 percent have access from their homes.
If we give up on diversity in broadcast media in favor of Gilder’s “first choice” media model, then pressure mounts for the FCC to help resolve such inequalities in media access. Don’t hold your breath. Powell has cynically compared the Digital Divide to the “Mercedes divide,” suggesting that in a capitalist culture, we can’t always buy what we want. If we abandon our commitment to diversity in free broadcast media, we will enter an era of “first choice” media for those who can afford it and “no choice” media for those who can’t.