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In Focus  :  Mega-Media
About the Series
Flashpoints USA with Bryant Gumbel and Gwen Ifill is an innovative public affairs series from PBS that brings together both compelling examinations of critical issues and a dynamic pairing of two of the most respected names in journalism.

Television Poll Do Americans feel they can trust the media? View the results of the Flashpoints USA nationwide survey.

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Media Frenzy Mega-Media The State of News

What Does America Think?
According to the Flashpoints USA nationwide survey, 68% of people feel new kinds of news organizations such as Internet Web sites give more choices today compared to a few years ago. However, 48% feel news organizations should only be owned by local groups, because they need to represent the local area.

In June 2003 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced changes to a series of decades-old media regulations and brought to light a controversy that has been brewing for years. The new guidelines would ease media ownership rules making it easier for companies to own both newspapers and TV stations in the same markets and allowing the nation's networks to acquire more of their local affiliates.

The Debate
The two sides of the ownership issue can be summarized as follows:

  1. Rules governing ownership are no longer necessary. Consumers have many choices when it comes to media, and market forces should determine how the industry is structured and how it operates.

  2. Concentration of ownership (that is, only one or two companies own the radio and television
    stations as well as the cable outlets in a community) limits the diversity and number of voices giving us news and information, and this in turn undermines our democracy.

The Rules
Below is a summary of three of the most controversial new broadcast Ownership rules adopted by the FCC on June 2, 2003.

Local TV Multiple Ownership Limit:
The new rule states:

  • In markets with five or more TV stations, a company may own two stations, but only one of these stations can be among the top four in ratings.

  • In markets with 18 or more TV stations, a company can own three TV stations, but only one of these stations can be among the top four in ratings.

  • In deciding how many stations are in the market, both commercial and non-commercial TV stations are counted.

The FCC adopted a waiver process for markets with 11 or fewer TV stations in which two top-four stations seek to merge. The FCC will evaluate on a case-by-case basis whether such stations would better serve their local communities together rather than separately.

National TV Ownership Limit:
The FCC incrementally increased the 35% limit to a 45% limit on national ownership.

  • A company can own TV stations reaching no more than a 45% share of U.S. TV households.

  • The share of U.S. TV households is calculated by adding the number of TV households in each market that the company owns a station. Regardless of the station's ratings, it is counted for all of the potential viewers in the market. Therefore, a 45% share of U.S. TV households is not equal to a 45% share of TV stations in the U.S.

On March 31, 2003, there were 1,340 commercial TV stations in the U.S. Of these 1,340 stations, Viacom owns 39 TV stations (2.9%), Fox owns 37 (2.8%), NBC owns 29 (2.2%) and ABC owns 10 (0.8%).

Cross Media Limits:
This rule replaces the broadcast-newspaper and the radio-television cross-ownership rules. The new rule states:

  • In markets with three or fewer TV stations, no cross-ownership is permitted among TV, radio and newspapers. A company may obtain a waiver of that ban if it can show that the television station does not serve the area served by the cross-owned property (i.e. the radio station or the newspaper).

  • In markets with between 4 and 8 TV stations, combinations are limited to one of the following:

    1. A daily newspaper; one TV station; and up to half of the radio station limit for that market (i.e. if the radio limit in the market is 6, the company can only own 3) OR
    2. A daily newspaper; and up to the radio station limit for that market; (i.e. no TV stations) OR
    3. Two TV stations (if permissible under local TV ownership rule); up to the radio station limit for that market (i.e. no daily newspapers).

In markets with nine or more TV stations, the FCC eliminated the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership ban and the television-radio cross-ownership ban.

The Decision
On July 23, 2003 The House of Representatives, concerned by the prospect of greater consolidation, voted to block the new media ownership regulations. The move to reverse a regulatory decision is extremely rare, however, many members of Congress were reacting to the estimated 2.3 million emails, phone calls and letters they received opposing the FCC's move. In addition, groups that banded together to challenge the FCC ruling include the National Rifle Association, the National Organization of Women, the U.S. conference of Catholic Bishops who fear that media dominance by a small number of companies would deprive special interests of airtime for their points of view.

What Happens Now?
In response to the Congressional opposition, Michael Powell, chairman of the FCC, said he would create a task force to study the "localism" of radio and television stations. The panel will begin meeting in the fall and will seek to answer questions such as how many hours stations devote to local issues and how to increase quality coverage. Powell, however has not backed down on the planned rule changes.

On September 16, 2003 the Senate approved a resolution to roll back new media ownership rules by a vote of 55-40. The issue now returns to the House where Republican leaders have pledged to kill the measure.

The Bush administration is strongly behind the FCC decision and has threatened to veto any legislation that seeks to roll back the deregulation.

Who Owns What?
What does the continuing rise of big media mean on a local level? The Online NewsHour features an interactive map of media conglomeration; use the map to explore newspaper and television ownership in the top 50 Nielsen markets.

Add your comments to our online discussion.


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