FCC hears earful in Tampa on consolidation

The Federal Communications Commission has rules that limit how many many media outlets — newspaper, television and radio stations — any one company can own in a given market (a local or metropolitan area). Media companies consider these rules archaic and want them relaxed so they might enjoy greater economies of scale and thus be better poised to compete for advertising against Big Internet companies such as Google and Yahoo.


On Monday all five FCC members held a public hearing in Tampa to gauge public opinion on whether or not to relax these so-called cross-ownership rules. Reporter Richard Mullins covered the event and filed a report in the Tampa Tribune that ended thus:

The biggest applause went to supporters of more diverse media ownership. Robert Dardenne, a former reporter and professor of journalism and media studies at USF St. Petersburg, drew a standing ovation by saying, “The FCC rules now narrow the range of viewpoints, and we are overfed Anna Nicole Smith and starved for alternative perspectives on war and how can we become better citizens? We are asked not to think, but to consume.”


The apparent anti-consolidation sentiment in Tampa echoes that captured in an October 2006 San Francisco Chronicle story about an informal FCC hearing in Northern California (only the two Democratic appointees attended what was in essence a protest organized by cross ownership opponents). That article (by a colleague on the newspaper where I work) included some excellent background on past FCC efforts to relax these same cross-ownership rules.


I have blogged on this topic before. I took a skeptical view of Big Media’s premise that consolidation would enable it better compete against Big Internet, likening this argument to a movie battle between Mothra and Godzilla. (My punch line: when Godzilla battles Mothra, surely the people of Tokyo must tremble.)


But though I am skeptical that bigger media will make for better media, I am equally concerned that the growing power of Web media will only lead to a more efficient way of pairing advertising messages with eyeball-catching content. I expressed that concern in a posting called Hot Tubs vs. Hot Zones. It asks what advertisers would prefer, lifestyle stories or hard news.


I also see little evidence that Web media are leading to any economically meaningful local media, that is to say, grassroots publishers with the resources to behave like the Fourth Estate. In a blog entry titled Like using Fed Ex to borrow a cup of sugar I bemoaned the centralization implicit in server-based social media.


Finally, I have also scolded media critics for putting a partisan tone on issues like media consolidation. In part this reflects the credo of journalism, which requires its practitioners to bite every hand that might possibly feed it, and in part my own disdain for “politics” which I equate with long meetings at which little is accomplished except the venting of hot air (which I can do with greater convenience, and in my underwear, via this blog, thank you very much).


But I am not merely against things. I hope to be more than an equal opportunity critic. I think the next stage of media should be a true grassroots media, and that require a business infrastructure to enable small producers to prosper, ala Alvin Toffler’s prosumer notion. Toward that end I have blogged in favor of open tools and standards for revenue sharing.


Meanwhile, I try to pay attention to the economic currents that are driving my professional life, even as I secretly admit that the only real value in my blogging may be its cathartic effect. But isn’t that the sort of self-delusion that writing is all about?