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Karyn Lewis

Prof. Bruce Austin

Mass Communications
Summer 20064
Paper #4: Broadcasting & the Public Interest
Despite the widespread view that America‟s brand of capitalism is the freest in the world,

in practice many of its markets are subject to extensive regulation. That is especially so in

the media business, where companies are bound by strict limits on market share and

cross-media ownership. Lawmakers and regulators have limited the number of TV and

radio stations a single company could own almost since the technologies were invented,

in the hopes of assuring a robust supply of competing viewpoints.

Tight regulation of broadcasters seemed justified in the days when a small number of

networks—NBC, ABC and CBS—had almost the entire audience to themselves. But the

rationale for this has weakened, along with the original network‟s ratings share, with the

rise of multi-channel satellite and cable televisions. The 1969 Supreme Court decision,

which upheld the idea that spectrum is scarce, gave the FCC the responsibility to police

the airwaves by deciding ownership limits (Mega-Giants). When this was decided,

however, there was no Internet, no widespread cable penetration, and no satellite service.

There were just the three above-mentioned networks. There was no digital capacity to

allow for the squeezing of more and more channels into the available spectrum, or low-

power TV. There were only a handful of conventional media outlets available in

communities, not dozens and dozens as there are today.

Even as cable networks attract greater shares, public interest groups and other critics want

more rules to limit the ability of local television broadcasters to conduct business. These

proponents of continuing the ban argue that newspapers and local TV stations remain the

dominant source of news for most people and that letting them combine would reduce

competition and independent viewpoints (Healey). But the other side argues that the

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media environment is dramatically different today—so different that the rule is no longer

necessary. The number of TV stations and radio broadcasters has increased by more than

50%, as have the number of TV broadcast networks. With most households receiving

scores of channels via cable or satellite TV, the four largest networks draw less than 50%

of the prime-time audience. Cable networks continue to invest in new programming,

providing even stronger alternatives to television-station programming. Personal video

recorders are growing fast, reducing the effectiveness of the only product that stations

sell: advertising time (Fratrik). And in the future, wide access to video programs via the

Internet will become a reality, adding an infinite number of choices for the local

consumer. That said, isn‟t it true that the plethora of competing sources of information

and the open platform provided by the Internet make the current media environment the

most diverse and rich in history?

Don‟t the proponents understand that further constraints jeopardize the viability of local

television stations? Don‟t these critics recognize that, without the modest deregulation of

ownership rules proposed by the FCC, television stations in many midsize and small

markets would find it difficult enough to keep the lights on, let alone serve their local

communities (Fratrik)? Certainly some local television stations will continue to prosper,

especially the stronger operations in the largest markets. But even those stations will face

more struggles in the future as consumers are offered more choices and have different

viewing alternatives. The more immediate concerns are the weaker stations or the stations

in the smaller markets. Without any ownership rule relief, local stations now facing

increased, unregulated competition from hundreds of cable and satellite-delivered

systems are finding themselves in dire times, threatening their position and ability to

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serve their communities. It‟s clear we are stuck in a system that serves the major media

companies and their profitability but does not serve the interests of localism, diversity

and the public (Horowitz).

Under the Communications Act of 1934 and the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the

broadcaster is a short-term licensee obligated to operate in the public interest (Geller).

Through this agreement, broadcasters have accepted the commitment to serve the public

interest in exchange for free use of the spectrum. Anti-trust laws should be sufficient

enough to guard against monopoly business practices. The public and broadcasters, not

government, should be the arbiters of content. Giving the government power over

information outlets can pose threats far greater than the perceived dangers of

consolidation. Clearly the public is not well-served by broadcasters whose size, scope and

content are subject to governmental control with typically partisan interests.

So who wins by further regulating over-the-air television stations? Clearly, not

broadcasters who are prevented from becoming more efficient and are saddled with

further expensive obligations (Fratrik). And clearly, not the communities served by these

broadcasters. There‟s no doubt the provisions that governed the transition from analog to

digital television, revised the broadcast ownership rules, and altered broadcast-licensing

procedures have had an important impact on the viewing public. Consumers are deciding

when, where and how they want content.

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Fratrik, Mark. “Loosen Up, Already.” Broadcasting & Cable. New York: Apr 18, 2005.
Vol. 135, Iss. 16; pg. 37. EBSCO Host Research Databases. Online. 10 July

Geller, Henry. “Promoting the public interest in the digital era.” Federal Communications
Law Journal. Los Angeles: May 2003. Vol. 55, Iss. 3; pg. 515. EBSCO Host
Research Databases. Online. 10 July 2007.

Healey, Jon. “Media ownership rules are so „70s; Technology and public tastes have
changed radically but regulations haven‟t kept pace.” Los Angeles Times. Los
Angeles, Calif.: Oct 14, 2006, pg. B. 17. EBSCO Host Research Databases.
Online. 10 July 2007.

Horowitz, Norman. “Who‟s Being Protected?” TelevisionWeek. Chicago: Jun 2, 2003.

Vol. 22; pg. 10. EBSCO Host Research Databases. Online. 10 July 2007.

“Mega-Giants and Scarcity.” Broadcasting & Cable. New York: Dec 6, 2004. Vol. 134,
Iss. 49; pg. 53. EBSCO Host Research Databases. Online. 10 July 2007.

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