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What the FCC Gives with One Hand, It Takes with the Other

by Danny Schechter

Monty Python's Eric Idle wrote a song expressing the way many Americans and media reformers feel about the Federal Communications Commission. He used one of the "seven dirty words" originally uttered by comedian George Carlin that forced many radio stations to zealously police their airwaves to avoid expensive fines or any offense to the media gods.

The song: 'Fuck You FCC.'

Wrote the irreverent singer: "Here's a little song I wrote the other day while I was out duck hunting with a judge... It's a new song, it's dedicated to the FCC and if they broadcast it, it will cost a quarter of a million dollars."

Now, for the first time in recent memory, the army of righteous FCC protagonists, the people who demonstrated at its Washington headquarters and lobbied until they were hoarse of throat and mute of mouth pressing for media localism and diversity, are in a state of shock.

The agency that for so many years did the bidding of the big boys in the industry, always regulating (and deregulating) in the interest of the owners, not the public-a FCC Commissioner in the Reagan years saw television as an appliance like washing machines-maybe about to do the right thing.

It has finally discovered what has been obvious in every living room in America-a small cartel of big brands dominate cable TV, blocking diversity and making it impossible for independent channels to compete. (Ask yourself: Why is Al-Jazeera on worldwide but not here?)

It finally recognized that cable costs have been going through the ceiling. The FCC remembered that it has a duty to stop anti-competitive practices and is now about to impose new rules that are giving the industry a cardiac arrest.

Cable is trouble. Last week, an industry magazine, Cable World gave up the ghost and shut down. Dick Parsons, the CEO of Time Warner, announced he was stepping down. Fellow mogul Barry Diller said he was breaking his media company into five parts. The industry is changing as its revenue model shifts thanks to a steady migration of viewers to the Internet.

Bloomberg reported: "The Federal Communications Commission, is expected to soon issue a report concluding that the cable industry's market share has passed a key threshold that will give the agency broad power to ensure that there is sufficient diversity on the airwaves, the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday."

Offers the NY Times: "The commission's conclusion that the cable industry has grown too large will be used to justify a raft of new cable television rules and proposals. They include a cap that would prevent the nation's largest cable company, Comcast Corporation, from growing, and would prevent other large cable companies, like Time Warner, from making any new large cable acquisitions." (Already, The Philadelphia Inquirer in Comcast's home town is framing the story as a blow to the company, not a victory for viewers.) Pushing for this change are Telecom companies and channels that have been blocked, including the NFL and Hallmark, as well as media reformers like Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, an advocacy organization that opposes consolidation in the media: "It gives the commission a blank check to regulate an industry that Congress had largely deregulated."

Yet, there are questions that need answers says Schwartzman's colleague Greg Kimmelman:

"While industry will surely challenge this finding, we have a great opportunity in the near future to challenge the FCC to address a number of important issues:

1. What unfair practices has cable used to block independent/diverse programming from the most affordable cable tiers, and what should be done to prevent this?

2. How is cable unfairly favoring its own programming to the detrement of independent programming, and what should be done to stop this?

3. What sweetheart deals does cable cut w/broadcast networks and their affiliated studios to the detriment of independent programmers/studios and how should we remedy that?

4. Why is there so little minority/women's programming, independent of cable/network control, on affordable (or ANY) tiers and what must be done to reverse this discrimination?

5. Why is it that, even with the enormous growth of satellite and now entry of telephone companies to compete with cable, cable rates keep going up 2.5 times faster than inflation and how does that inhibit adequate availability of diverse information in the cable market?"

At the same time, what the Republican dominated Commission giveth with one hand, it may take away with the other. Chairman Martin is at the same time thought to be promoting other new rules that will lead to more, not less media concentration. Nearly a thousand people came to a hearing in Seattle last week to denounce that maneuver.

Chris Gregoire, the Governor of Washington State said: "I find it ironic that in an age with so many new ways for people to communicate - and so many ways to exercise the beauty of Democracy - we face the very real threat that these new ways will be controlled by a few," Gregoire said, adding consolidation stifles creativity, narrows perspectives and is unhealthy in a society that rests on the principles of equality and diversity.

This argument did not impress Chairman Martin explained Free Press's Josh Silver on Huffington Post: "FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has made it clear that he doesn't care one bit. The White House-appointed chairman of the five-member commission is one of Washington's dwindling class of hard core Bush loyalists, and he plans to remove some of the last remaining media ownership limits before the end of the year. Seven years ago, Martin was a 33 year-old GOP attorney sent by Team Bush to lead the Florida recount. His wife is a former senior counselor to Vice-President Cheney, and now serves as a deputy assistant to President Bush."

So the battlelines are being drawn once again. This time around, media activists are better organized then they were the last time media rules promoting consolidation were passed. But they/we are still up against powerful media companies who have a full court press on to see the ownership restriction eased or eliminated.

At the same time, a new media environment has old media on the wane and may open a door to the kinds of changes that have been needed for so long.

The fight for media reform is moving onto the front burner. No matter what your main issue is-the war, or the environment, or economic justice-media change has to be on your front burner too. It's time once again to let your voice be heard. Tune in-or be tuned out!

News Dissector Danny Schechter is "blogger-in chief" of Mediachannel.org, His new film is IN DEBT WE TRUST: America Before the Bubble Burst (Indebtwetrust.com) Comments to Dissector@mediachannel.org

© 2007 MediaChannel.org

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