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How the FCC influences what you see/read/read

How the FCC influences what you see/read/read

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    FCC article FCC article Document Transcript

    • [This article is copyright by the Baltimore Sun, which can be reached at http://www.baltimoresun.com]
        How the FCC has influenced what you see, hear, read.
      Regulations: With an easing of media ownership rules likely to be approved tomorrow, the agency will again make its mark, as it has for 70 years.
      By Andrew Ratner Sun Staff
      June 1, 2003
      Nicholas Johnson was distressed by what he was hearing on the radio as he stopped at greasy spoons and filling stations as he traveled the flatlands of the Midwest. This was in the 1970s, after he'd completed his term leading the Federal Communications Commission.
      The broadcast unnerved him. Stirring commentaries by the actor-turned-governor, Ronald Reagan, breached, he believed, the " fairness doctrine" that required equal air time for the two main political parties. Johnson's warnings to the Democratic National Committee fell on deaf ears, he felt. He wasn't surprised by the ascent years later of talk radio and the orator who had impressed him.
      Everything heard on the radio or seen on television is influenced, to some extent, by decisions made on the eighth floor of a sterile office tower a few blocks south of the Mall in Washington, the home of the FCC.
      Tomorrow, the commission will vote on, and likely approve, the most sweeping change in a generation in the rules that govern media power.
      Although the commission's work, to many, is mysterious and remote from daily life, for seven decades it has been at the root of what you hear when you switch on the radio or television: all the sex talk on Friends when the children are still awake at 8 p.m., the " infomercial," the copycat versions of instant hit shows such as Survivor and American Idol, the rise of Rush Limbaugh. Though they may not look alike, the children of the airwaves all share a little DNA from the FCC.
      Many large media companies and their supporters have lobbied for the pending rule changes that would allow them to own two or three TV stations in a single town or larger combinations of TV, newspaper and radio outlets.
      A few dozen exceptions exist, from Tampa, Fla., to Los Angeles, in which a company owns two top TV stations or combines one with a daily newspaper, but most of those date from 30 years ago, before the FCC rules.
      The companies say that making it easier for them to buy media outlets would allow them to bundle advertising, share news content and compete more effectively with new media such as the Internet, cable and satellite TV.
      One of the leading proponents is Tribune Co. of Chicago, which owns The Sun among its 11 newspapers, 26 TV stations, four radio stations, numerous Web sites, part of the WB network and the Chicago Cubs baseball team.
      Critics contend that the FCC plans to swing the pendulum too far, allowing too much power in the hands of a relative few multimedia conglomerates. They contend that nonlocal owners have less stake in the affairs of the communities where they own news outlets and that a decline in the number of owners upsets the delicate balance of diverse viewpoints in a democracy.
      Lawsuits likely
      A majority of the five-member commission apparently thinks the media companies' view is correct. Chairman Michael K. Powell is expected to lead the group's Republican majority over two Democrats who have publicly opposed the plan. Some members of Congress have vowed to try to roll back the FCC's move, and lawsuits are likely.
      The debate won't end here - and didn't start here.
      The FCC was born 70 years ago this month, partly out of fears of the awesome might of the invention of Italian engineer Guglielmo Marconi, the radio. Concerns grew as politicians increased their prowess with the medium, culminating in the effective " fireside chats" of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s and 1940s.
      The conflicts between freedom of speech and managing broadcasters flared in 1938 when the public was panicked by reports of a " Martian invasion" that turned out to be a dramatic radio adaptation of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds by actor Orson Welles. After an investigation, the FCC decided not to punish the stations that carried the show.
      A second network
      The rise of television created new concerns about electronic influence. The FCC required the new National Broadcasting Company - NBC - to sell one of its two radio networks, the Red and the Blue.
      Edward J. Noble, who made a fortune with Life Savers after buying the rights to the candy concept for $2,900, grasped the potential of television. He bought the Blue network for $8 million in 1943. It became the American Broadcasting Company, ABC.
      Some maneuvers took years to affect what viewers were seeing.
      Sen. John W. Bricker, an Ohio Republican, pushed for a major investigation of the networks in the mid-1950s after CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow focused his See It Now program on Bricker's bill to alter presidential treaty powers. The investigation led the networks to farm out more of their programming to independent producers.
      James L. Baughman, a communications professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of Television's Guardians: The FCC and the Politics of Programming, 1958-1967, contended that groundbreaking network shows of the 1970s such as Norman Lear's All in the Family and Grant Tinker's Mary Tyler Moore were the product - fortunate, but unintended - of the networks' being forced to use more outside producers.
      Bricker gained support from unlikely allies - liberal Democrats who feared " big brother" media and rural congressmen whose fates depended heavily on small-town broadcasters, Baughman said.
      That odd coalition has echoes today: Anti-war protesters, gun-rights activists, clergy and small businessmen have joined in criticism of the pending move toward greater media consolidation.
      The FCC was a strident critic itself, urging more children's programming, less violence and fewer commercials as the baby boomers grew up.
      " I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there for the day. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland," Newton N. Minow said in a famous speech during his first year as FCC chairman in 1961.
      Nicholas Johnson, who chaired the commission from 1966 to 1973, continued to admonish the broadcast industry and wrote hundreds of dissenting opinions against FCC decisions with which he disagreed. He became sufficiently fed up to write a protest guide for the public, How to Talk Back to Your Television Set.
      " The notion from the beginning was that the airwaves were public property. A broadcaster has a transmitter, an antenna tower, studios and offices, but what turns that $3 million worth of property into a $200 million television station is that license on the wall. I don't care what Michael Powell says, that hasn't changed," said Johnson, now a university law professor in his native Iowa.
      But FCC concepts such as " integration of management and ownership," preferring community applicants who live where they broadcast, struggled to hold against the force of commercialism and consolidation.
      " Tommy Smothers [comedian] once explained to me that programming is like the Styrofoam that keeps the TV set in the packaging from getting broken. It just keeps the commercials from rattling around," Johnson said. " In TV, the advertiser is the true consumer and the broadcaster is the seller. The audience is actually the product."
      Broadcast deregulation gained favor in the Carter administration and accelerated under Reagan. The FCC chairman during the latter's tenure, Mark Fowler, described television as a " toaster with pictures" and said it deserved no more regulation than any appliance.
      " When I talked about a 'toaster with pictures,' it was a pretty serious point I was making," said Fowler, now a telecommunications and satellite entrepreneur in Florida. " The FCC had become a government censor. We took out a grease pencil, went over programming and decided whether a station was being fair or unfair. Newspaper content wasn't being regulated by a central government authority. That sounded more like Moscow than D.C.
      " I don't see how an agency can review the quality of programs without running afoul of the First Amendment," he said. " We let the marketplace and the viewers decide what goes out there. Some people love watching wrestling. It's terrible programming, but some like it. That's the marketplace."
      Fowler succeeded in changing the FCC's " 7-7-7" rule, which barred an owner of TV, FM and AM radio stations from having more than seven of each. That grew to " 12-12-12," and then to a " 25 percent" rule: No TV broadcaster could own stations that reached more than a quarter of the nation's viewers.
      'Deregulatory vision'
      " To his credit, Fowler had a very deregulatory vision that was far outside the mainstream, but he was very systematic and effective in getting the ball rolling. He laid the philosophical groundwork," said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president and chief executive officer of the Media Access Project.
      By the time Australian-born media magnate Rupert Murdoch launched Fox as a fourth U.S. network, the rules had changed. Fox opted to run entertainment in the slot usually taken by a nightly newscast - " candy rather than spinach," one FCC official said. That helped draw viewers from the original networks, who held tight to their signature nightly newscasts, fixtures of the FCC public service doctrine and family dinners at 5 p.m.
      Reed E. Hundt, appointed by President Bill Clinton to chair the FCC from 1993 to 1997, thinks the balance in the debate shifted markedly after Watergate and President Richard M. Nixon's resignation.
      Political conservatives thought the media - " nattering nabobs of negativism," Nixon's vice president, Spiro T. Agnew, called them - could no longer be impartial after their reporting forced Nixon from the White House.
      " The price the media paid for the Nixon impeachment was that they were never forgiven by conservatives, who never again believed they were truly neutral," Hundt said. " But when government walks away totally from this issue, it's like when you don't do your garden. There will be weeds growing."
      The most significant modern change, little noticed at the time, was in 1996. The Telecommunications Act that year momentously reformed the phone industry but also included a provision that the FCC review its rules every two years.
      It seemed innocuous to many at the time. But the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington ruled that requirement meant the FCC had to justify its rules every two years. That invited the current review and proposed revision under Powell.
      Who gets to speak
      " The First Amendment is the most important contribution of the United States to the world ever, but when you're talking about broadcasting, you're talking about who gets to speak," said Jim Naureckas of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a media watch group that began in 1986.
      " Yes, these changes have been happening for a long time. But it's like saying we've killed most the whooping cranes, so why don't we kill the rest of them."