A proposal by Michael Powell, the head of the Federal Communication Commission, could have serious consequences for New York's local news, threatening small and independently-owned news operations here.
The new rules would allow large media companies to buy more TV stations in each market, and would eliminate the law that prevents a company from owning a TV station and a newspaper in the same city. The result of the changes is likely to be a buying frenzy by large media conglomerates, which already own an astonishing proportion of news outlets. For example, according to NYC IndyMedia, just three companies, AOL-Time Warner, General Electric, and News Corp, own the majority of cable news networks in the country.
The media will become even more consolidated if the proposal is passed on June 2 when FCC commissioners are expected to vote on the issue. The FCC currently includes two Democrat commissioners, both of whom oppose the new measures and are pushing for increased public input.
However, TV station owners support the measures, saying that they cannot afford to compete with new sources of news such as cable news networks and the Internet, nor upgrade to digital transmission of their broadcasting signal, without future mergers. Media companies have been aggressively lobbying the FCC to rule in their favor.
In early May, 300 academics specializing in media and communications wrote to the FCC to demand that the proposal be released for public comment prior to the June 2 deadline. On April 28th, Queens College Professor Mara Einstein wrote: "The FCC has taken a step in the wrong direction in trying to use strictly quantitative measures in assessing the needs for media-ownership caps. The FCC says it will decide by June 2. That's simply too soon, given the lack of broad public debate."
On May 15, Powell rebuffed attempts by his critics to make the full details of the proposal public or extend the June 2 deadline. The current deadline for pubic comment is May 30.
According to a New York-based media arts professional, "The limits on ownership help to preserve the few outlets left for media unencumbered by corporate interests, and which truly serves the democratic principles of an open and informed exchange of ideas."
For a snapshot of what the New York media might look like (and sound like) post-media mergers, just turn on the radio. According to NYC IndyMedia, 60 percent of top radio stations are owned by Clear Channel or one of two other corporations.
In New York, any TV company would be allowed to own a total of three TV stations. "This is giving control of the news and flow of information to a handful of media giants," said Aidan White, International Federation of Journalists General Secretary. "It is a process that will diminish the diversity of ideas and opinions and will marginalize minority opinions and dissent."
Evidence of the possible negative impacts of media consolidation on the media is not hard to find. For example, at Fox-owned TV stations WWOR and WNYW in New York City, one news director oversees both newscasts according to the New York Observer. In addition, job cuts are likely as a result of mergers according to New York Newsday. Other impacts include what some have called "the death of local news" and the extinction of the small ethnic media outlets.
However, a study by Columbia Business School Professor Eli Noam, which was posted as a public comment to the FCC, shows that the effects of media ownership deregulation may be neither strongly negative nor positive. He shows that while the concentration of ownership has increased since 1996, overall, the market is still relatively unconcentrated. In addition, Noam observes that over the past twenty years regulated industries (such as the mass media under current media ownership rules) have gone through cycles of high and low concentration.
According to a Consumers Union report (in pdf format) which criticizes the FCC's proposal, New York may be a large and diverse enough market to withstand some consolidation. While TV-newspaper mergers should not be allowed in the majority of cities in the United States because they are one- or two-newspaper towns, there are many more news sources in New York. Thus, Consumers Union concludes that TV-newspaper mergers could be allowed without significant damage to the diversity of local news.
Laura Forlano is a doctoral student studying communication technology policy at Columbia University.