[Lott] Big Media Lose, Consumers Win

The federal 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a challenge by consumer groups to rules proposed by the Federal Communications Commission, which would have allowed more cross ownership of local print, television and broadcast media. Having a single media company control both the print and broadcast media in a single market would be bad for consumers, and I'm glad the court has agreed. As a conservative, I believe that diverse ownership and more competition are good things because they encourage businesses to better serve customers in local communities. That especially includes the media who use public airwaves and in whom the public trusts.

The FCC got in hot water last June when they suddenly decided to relax tried and true rules capping the number of newspaper, radio and television outlets any individual company may own in a single media market. The 3rd Circuit court stayed the new rules, pending review of the FCC's action. These existing rules had been put in place to foster competition and protect consumers. By changing these rules without much consultation with Congress or the public, the FCC acted hastily, failing to see the view of smaller states with small media markets that could be more easily dominated by big and mostly out-of-state media companies.

We can never forget the media is a business that directly impacts our basic right of free speech. It's also a business that depends on broadcast frequencies, owned by U.S. taxpayers and licensed by our government. These licenses are granted, in part, based on the media companies' commitment to serve the unique local market needs with the local frequencies entrusted to them. The federal government has a special responsibility to ensure both a competitive media market and to foster good usage of public airwaves that benefits localities.

However, in recent years media companies have consolidated. As they get bigger and bigger, they try to test guidelines concerning use of the broadcast airwaves, particularly as they relate to indecency and local service. We know how broadcast decency standards have been watered down. We know that the South and Midwest continue to have a very different view of indecency than folks on the East and West Coasts, and our media should reflect that, instead of trying to change it.

Yet, the issue is more than decency. Have you ever turned on your local radio station trying to get a local weather report and instead got music, programming or even ads piped in from four states away? It happens under existing rules and would have been a bigger problem with the FCC's proposal, which would have allowed even more consolidation.

Here's why: Big print media companies are not only buying each other, but buying radio and television stations, and vice versa. There's nothing wrong with cross-ownership, but creating an environment where one far-off company can dominate both the print and broadcast business within a single market is foolish. All are best served by having access to diverse voices and competitive rates for their markets.

Take Mississippi, for example. Our biggest media market is the Jackson area. Jackson is typical of small and intermediate media markets throughout the nation. We have only one major daily newspaper. There are four big televison stations and dozens of radio stations. Already the daily print market is a monopoly, dominated by a chain based in the Washington, D.C., area. So there's only one game in town for advertisers and news hounds seeking a daily print outlet. For broadcast. there is competitive, but under the rule changes as proposed by the FCC, existing media companies in Mississippi's largest media market could have cross ownership of both print and broadcast media. That means one big, out-of-state company would have been allowed a lock on Mississippi's most influential media market, both in terms of advertising dollars and news coverage. Most Mississippians wouldn't like the result if it were allowed to happen.

Thanks to the 3rd Circuit Court's ruling, it's not likely to happen. Our broadcast media markets will remain competitive without excess consolidation. The court's decision compels the FCC to start over with their review of media ownership rules, and I am hopeful the process will be more fair next time. Americans want choice, especially from an industry that's supposed to uphold our constitution, serve local needs, reflect local values and use our public airwaves to do it.


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