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Goodbye Digital Democracy...

The FCC is poised to redraw the rules for modern media companies and according to Chester, public interest issues don't even have a seat at the table.
Goodbye Digital Democracy...
An Interview With Jeff Chester

Steven Rosenfeld is an audio producer and reporter for TomPaine.com.

Jeff Chester is Executive Director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a nonprofit organization working to ensure that digital media systems serve the public interest. He's been monitoring Federal Communications Commission lobbying and deliberations over rules concerning media ownership, mergers and acquisitions, and control of programming and cable access. The FCC is poised to redraw the rules for modern media companies and according to Chester, public interest issues don't even have a seat at the table. Steve Rosenfeld interviewed Chester for TomPaine.com.

TomPaine.com: The Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the public airwaves and media providers, is poised to make a number of important, if not historic decisions on media ownership and monopolies. What's the scope of these issues before the FCC?

Jeff Chester: The future of our entire media and communications system, including the Internet, is now literally up for grabs. The major media industries -- cable and broadcasting and newspapers -- have been lobbying the Federal Communications Commission, the Congress, and litigating in the courts, in order to be able to grow larger, more powerful, unencumbered. So the ability of the media system to really support a diverse and wide range of competing content, both commercial and non-commercial, is in doubt. The major media companies are aggressively lobbying the FCC to end safeguards, which have for decades ensured some diversity of ownership.

TP.c: What about the Internet?

Chester: The Federal Communications Commission is also poised, because of cable industry lobbying, to end the traditional policy of open access to the Internet, which places now the Internet in jeopardy. So, what you have is this kind of frenzy of lobbying activity, from broadcast, newspaper and cable interests, all designed so their businesses can grow ever-larger. What's missing, of course, is the role of the public and the public interest. The FCC is poised to eliminate all of these public interest safeguards allowing a handful of media giants, from the network television and cable TV industry, to grow even larger, more powerful, with being able to extend their domain to the Internet as well.

TP.c: I've heard you say there are four or five critical cases, each with differing issues before the FCC. What are these cases?

Chester: The first is a long-standing safeguard that prohibits in one community the common ownership of newspaper and broadcast stations. The vision that the media industry really have, in terms of ownership is, that a single company in one community could own the newspaper, several television stations, several radio stations, the cable system, and potentially, even the phone company. We're really talking about the creation of local media empires and, of course, fewer companies owning most of the national U.S. media as well. Once these rules are swept away, then a handful of companies will be able to, in essence, dominate the news media in a community and extend that reach across the country.

TP.c: So the first case concerns newspaper and broadcast mergers. What's the next one?

Chester: The second public policy now before the FCC are rules, which have limited, up until now, the power and reach a particular cable company can have. In 1992, the Congress, concerned about growing cable monopoly, ordered the Federal Communications Commission to pass safeguards on cable system ownership. Up until last March, when the courts overturned the rule, a single cable company could only control no more than 30 percent of the nation's cable systems. And there was a similar limit on the number of channels that that cable company could control in any given community.

Well, companies like Time Warner, now AOL Time Warner, and AT&T and others, chafed at this even modest a safeguard, and failing to get the Congress of the FCC to overturn it, went to the courts. Under the FCC's review, it is very likely that the new ceiling might be as high as 60 percent, in essence allowing two cable companies to control all of the nation's cable television systems, and with almost total control of cable channels.

TP.c: But we're not just talking about cable mergers, isn't this also true for broadcast television?

Chester: The other key public policy [under FCC review] is the current cap on the number of television stations that a broadcast network can own. Right now the networks, including Viacom CBS, and GE NBC, and Disney ABC, are limited in the number of stations they can own across the country. They're limited to the number of stations that equal 35 percent of the television-viewing audience. The big networks, including Fox, want to end that cap, so they can own an unlimited number of stations, forcing local owners to sell. And so, with the elimination if the ownership cap, which is expected soon by the courts, the FCC is likely to weaken or end that safeguard as well.

And then the final critical issue is on the future openness of the Internet. Up until now, the Internet has evolved because the FCC has required Internet service over telephone lines to be open and nondiscriminatory. That has allowed the Internet, in essence to grow as a democratic medium, permitting unlimited numbers of Internet Service Providers to connect to the network and protecting everyone's content. The cable industry is aggressively lobbying now, apparently successfully, so that soon the FCC will declare cable Internet service, broadband cable service, in a regulatory fashion that allows cable operators to extend their monopoly -- that they have today over television -- into the Internet digital era.

TP.c: How is all this possible? I thought the FCC had a public interest mandate written into law?

Chester: Michael Powell, the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission appointed by President Bush, likes to say that, A, he really doesn't understand what the public interest is. But that, in essence, allowing the market to work will determine the public interest. In that way, Powell is a throwback to the first FCC chairman under Ronald Reagan, Mark Fowler, who declared that television was just another appliance. It was a toaster with pictures, and hence the market could determine what people saw and what people paid for television.

TP.c: There's obviously been very little press coverage of this, hardly any outside trade journals. Where are media critics and media reporters on this story?

Chester: Certainly some of the leading media critics in the country should be on this story, particularly those who regularly cover the newspaper industry, because, as I mentioned, the newspaper-broadcast rule is now up for review and possible elimination. It is unfortunate that people who should be taking a leading role here, like Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post, or David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times, have not yet tackled this issue. Yet their own papers, one way or another, either directly or indirectly, are clearly lobbying the Federal Communications Commission to end the broadcast-newspaper safeguard.

The public is simply unaware of how these public policies will affect their media environment. This is an issue that is rarely covered in any kind of detailed way by the news media, and when it is, it is often framed as a business story, and never leaves the business pages.

TP.c: So what's the timetable for FCC action?

Chester: The FCC is expected, probably by the summer, to make a decision on rules related to broadcast-newspaper cross ownership and cable system limits. Soon thereafter, they will likely do something on network television rules, and they are expected within the next few weeks to end the open-access requirements that cable television has [for the Internet].

To find out more about the FCC's pending decision to grant cable companies monopoly control of Internet broadband access, visit the Center for Digital Democracy's latest Washington Watch. ( http://www.democraticmedia.org/news/washingtonwatch/cableInformationService.html)

Published: Jan 16 2002

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