Free-Market Broadcasting vs. the Marketplace of Ideas
Published on Friday, August 29, 2003 by the Seattle Times
Free-Market Broadcasting vs. the Marketplace of Ideas
by Elizabeth Blanks Hindman

It isn't often that the Federal Communications Commission charged with regulating the nation's airwaves receives 2 million citizen comments about proposed changes in regulation, especially when the vast majority of them are opposed to the changes.

But that's what happened before and after a June vote that saw the FCC, in a 3-2 party-line vote, raise the number of television viewers a single company can reach.

What's even more unusual, though, is that in July, the House of Representatives voted 400-21 to deny the FCC funding to implement that change. Several senators from both parties say they will do the same, while President Bush says he will veto attempts to overrule the FCC.

On the surface, the changes don't seem all that dramatic, but they are part of an alarming trend toward loosening ownership rules for radio and television owners. This time, among other things, the FCC increased the percentage of national audience any one company can reach through its television stations, from 35 percent to 45 percent.

What might these changes mean? In a July 15 letter to FCC Chairman Michael Powell, FCC Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein wrote, "A single company could own up to 48 stations in the top 21 TV markets or 310 stations in the bottom 177 markets, representing 23.13 percent of all full-power commercial TV stations."

Following that logic, two companies could own nearly half of all full-power television stations in the country. Or three could own nearly three quarters. Not a cheerful prospect, but a potential one.

Fundamentally, the current struggle over regulations on broadcast ownership reflects deep philosophical differences over the effect of those regulations. Powell, the president and the National Association of Broadcasters see regulations as hindering the free market, and consequently the ability of broadcasters to effectively and efficiently serve their constituents, whoever those might be.

Opponents of the loosened ownership rules from smaller television station owners to the National Rifle Association and the American Civil Liberties Union argue that consolidation of ownership hurts the marketplace of ideas because it leads to fewer voices, or possible points of view. To these groups, more owners mean more perspectives available to the American public.

The free market works for some products. But when the producer uses a public resource, then the public should have some say. That's true when companies affect the environment, when government spends public money, and when broadcasters use public airwaves.

And that is what broadcasters do: use our airwaves. Yours and mine. As far back as 1934, Congress recognized that, and required broadcasters to act "in the public interest."

In 1943, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter explained: "Unlike other modes of expression, radio inherently is not available to all... and that is why... it is subject to governmental regulation. Because it cannot be used by all, some who wish to use it must be denied."

What that means is that because not everyone can have his or her own broadcast frequency, those who do use the airwaves must behave in ways that benefit the public.

So, what does this have to do with ownership regulations? The mass media, including broadcasters, provide most of the information we get concerning public issues. Fewer owners mean fewer potential points of view about those issues.

As recently as 1990, companies were limited to owning 12 AM radio stations, 12 FM stations and 12 television stations nationwide, with tighter restrictions on what they could own in a single market. This ensured that in most cities, many different companies would own the various stations.

Ideally, that led to different perspectives on radio and television, and more choice for audiences. The loosening of ownership limits over the past decade or so has created a system where fewer companies control the airwaves and what you and I see and hear. For instance, in Spokane, nearly half (13 of 28) of the commercial radio stations are owned by two companies. In Minot, N.D., 75 percent of the commercial radio stations are owned by a single company. Simply put, that's not good for the marketplace of ideas.

Let me share an example. In Phoenix, a group of clergy from United Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Catholic, Lutheran, United Church of Christ and Unitarian churches wanted to rent billboard space to advocate for justice for gay and lesbian individuals. The clergy, who call their group No Longer Silent: Clergy for Justice, went to the two companies that own nearly all the billboards in the Phoenix area Clear Channel and Viacom but neither would rent them space. The group's message, said the two media companies, was too controversial.

Now, under a free market system, both Clear Channel and Viacom are free to refuse No Longer Silent's request. But because those two are essentially the only game in town, the message was lost, at least in that format. If there had been more billboard owners in Phoenix, No Longer Silent's voice might have been heard.

Admittedly, that's not a broadcast example, but it is evidence of what can happen when relatively few companies own the means of communication. And there's no reason to believe a similar situation wouldn't occur in a community with few broadcast owners.

And that should worry all of us.

Elizabeth Blanks Hindman is an associate professor at Washington State University, where she teaches media law and media ethics.

Copyright 2003 The Seattle Times Company