Will Children Lose Out in Media Mergers?

Commentary Norris Dickard
June 29, 2003

Does it really matter who owns the television station your kids watch? Apparently so.

A recent study by Children Now, an organization that focuses on improving the quality of news and entertainment media for children, analyzed the Los Angeles media market. It found that the number of broadcast TV programs for children dropped sharply after independent local stations were acquired in media mergers.

The study covered an era of heavy consolidation, 1998-2002, and found the amount of children's programming declined by about half. Also, there was less original programming and more re-packaged programming. A case in point was a Viacom-owned station that before the wave of consolidation began showed 26 hours per week of children's programming and afterwards showed only three hours.

On June 2, 2003, a divided Federal Communications Commission (FCC), led by Republican Michael Powell, voted 3 to 2 to loosen the rules that govern ownership of the nation's media. Children's advocates now worry that more mergers, more consolidation, and a continued decline in the amount and quality of children's programming are ahead.

At least some members of Congress share that concern. On June 16, 2003, the members of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee grilled all the commissioners on their decision and, in a subsequent executive session, passed legislation to reinstate some of the media ownership restrictions. This FCC —rollback—bill could soon go to the Senate floor for a full vote. Similar bills are advancing in the U.S. House of Representatives.

FCC Commissioner Copps has requested that the FCC stay, or postpone, its decision "until the people's elected representatives complete their deliberations." But barring unusually swift action by Congress, the expectation is that the new rules will go into effect within the next couple of months. Once that happens, many existing barriers to media consolidation will be lifted. For example, under the old rules, a single corporation cannot dominate a local TV market, nor can it merge a community's TV stations, radio stations and newspaper into a single company. The new rules relax these "cross-ownership" restrictions.

Also, the already-generous limits on the number of broadcast stations one corporation could own will be made even more expansive: Now, a company can own stations reaching a maximum of 35 percent of U.S. households. The new rules would increase that to almost 50 percent.

One restriction that remains in place is the ban on mergers between any of the major television networks: ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox.

The FCC is the regulatory body that sets limits on who can own what in the media arena. Congress has mandated that the nation's media ownership rules protect "localism, competition and diversity in the media."

Proponents of the deregulatory course the FCC has set in motion say the existing rules are obsolete in the brave new media world of the Internet, cable, and satellite TV. Vocal opponents of deregulation fear that a greater consolidation of ownership will lead to fewer media voices and less local news, threatening democracy in the digital age. Others more neutral in the debate have been concerned about the speed with which the FCC has moved to change the rules, and whether the process was sufficiently open.

And then there's the impact on children—avid and impressionable consumers of media that they are. FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, in a dissent to the June vote, criticized the FCC for moving forward with greater media deregulation without considering what it could mean for the quality of children's programming. He also argued that the FCC should have studied the issue of whether deregulation might lead to more inappropriate programming.

Copps wrote, in part: "Some have suggested that there may be a link between increasing consolidation and increasing indecency on our airwaves. Yet, the Commission failed to address this issue in its analysis. Has consolidation led to an increase in the amount of indecent programming? When programming decisions are made on Wall Street or Madison Avenue, rather than closer to the community, do indecency and excessive violence grow more pervasive? I do not know the answer to this question. I do know this: we have no business voting until we take a serious look at the matter and amass at least a credible body of evidence. We owe it to our children, and their parents, to explore this question before voting on whether to allow more consolidation."

Before the vote, the FCC was flooded with electronic comments and cards opposing the new rules. They came from ordinary citizens affiliated with groups from across the entire political spectrum: far right, far left, and everything in between. Brent Bozell, President of the Parents Television Council, wryly noted that there aren't many issues which find the National Rifle Association and the National Organization for Women on the same side: "When all of us are united on an issue, then one of two things has happened. Either the Earth has spun off its axis and we have all lost our minds or there is universal support for a concept."

While the outpouring of opposition to the new rules didn't sway the majority of the FCC commissioners, some advocates are hoping Congress will step in. Common Sense Media, a non-profit organization whose mission is to give parents, educators and kids a choice and a voice about the media they consume, issued this statement after the FCC vote: "But there is hope. In this pushback to the decision, and in the massive public outcry against it, we may be seeing a political realignment that will benefit the cause of children and the effect that today's media has on them."

While the Senate Commerce Committee's action raises the prospect that the new rules might not take full effect, the rollback legislation still has a long ways to go before becoming law—and it is expected to face a more hostile reception in the House.


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Norris Dickard is the director of public policy at the Washington, D.C. based Benton Foundation.