WASHINGTON – Supporters of media ownership restrictions are making a final push to warn of the dangers of more media mergers ahead of an FCC vote that stacks 3-2 against them.
The Federal Communications Commission (search) is to consider on Monday eliminating many of the restrictions on a single company owning combinations of newspapers and TV and radio stations in the same city. Another proposal would raise a cap preventing one company from owning TV stations that reach more than 35 percent of U.S. households.
Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, the two Democratic commissioners at the FCC, want to keep the restrictions in place. They are lined up against FCC Chairman Michael Powell and the commission's two other Republicans.
Copps and Adelstein joined on Tuesday with about two dozen groups opposed to the deregulation.
"Absent a change of direction in the chairman's office, we will likely have dramatically altered our nation's media landscape," Copps said. "At stake is who will control the gateways to the media, who will control the content of the media and for what purposes."
Critics say relaxing the decades-old rules governing ownership of newspapers and TV and radio stations will kick off a merger frenzy and put a few corporations in control of what people watch, read and hear.
The collection of consumer groups, small broadcasters, religious organizations, writers and musicians spoke before a backdrop of mail baskets filled with about 250,000 post cards sent by National Rifle Association (search) members opposed to eased ownership rules.
Powell, who conducted a series of one-on-one interviews with the media, said adjustments to the rules are needed to reflect a market changed by cable TV, satellite broadcasts and the Internet. He also said if the FCC fails to act, outdated rules will be swept away by court challenges.
"What I worry about is that all of the rules will be eliminated - not by us, but a judicial regime," he said. "If you don't do surgery on this patient, it is going to die. Free over-the-air TV is going to die. The rules are going to die."
Powell agreed that some limits are needed. He said the FCC's new rules will protect competition and diverse and local viewpoints while permitting beneficial mergers.
He said the changes also are needed to protect media sources people take for granted.
"We're trying to make sure that quality content doesn't continue to flee to pay television," Powell said.
Adelstein disagreed with Powell's reasoning, saying, "Free over-the-air television is alive and well."
"Is it the job of the FCC to make sure every big television network in this country makes a lot of money?" he said. "I think our first job is to make sure the American people get a diversity of viewpoints."
Critics worry television could become like radio: deregulation in 1996 allowed companies to amass hundreds of stations and cut costs by replacing local shows with national programming.
Powell said that example is misleading and that deregulation was a good thing for radio.
"The radio industry was dying," he said. "When there was a proper amount of consolidation permitted, a lot of it restored health to the radio industry."
Smaller broadcasters and network affiliates worry that networks will gobble up more stations and limit local control of programming. Critics also say mergers will lead to more sensationalism and lower standards.
"Maybe instead of giving more control, steps should be taken to take some of it away from those that are blatantly offending the American family," said L. Brent Bozell III, president of theParents Television Council (search).
Powell said FCC research shows that network-owned stations produce more and higher quality news and that the FCC will change rules "in a manner that will foster the promotion of additional news content."
Powell also rebuffed concerns that a ban on joint ownership of newspapers and broadcast stations is needed to so those outlets can monitor each other. He said competition in the media serves that need and "our rules are designed to continue to promote competition."