FCC ‘Diversity Index’

Mar 3, 2003  •  Post A Comment

For alchemists in the Middle Ages, it was turning base metals into gold.
For Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell today, it’s finding a mathematical formula spelling out how many media properties a single company can own.
“It’s as close to science as we can do,” said Ken Ferree, one of Mr. Powell’s top lieutenants, last week.
“We’re trying to find a way to assign a numerical value to what’s going on in a market.”
As it stands the FCC has a series of regulations restricting ownership of media properties, with separate rules for radio, TV, cable and newspapers.
Under the new concept, a half dozen or more rules would be replaced with an equation of sorts.
Media industry representatives would be able to consult the formula, plugging the appropriate values into a string of variables to determine how many daily newspapers and radio and TV stations they could buy in a particular market.
“The idea is to make this as usable as possible,” Mr. Ferree said.
The agency is currently considering whether to ax or relax the limits as part of a wide-ranging regulatory review. The fact that the agency staff is already working on the so-called “diversity index” provides further evidence of the agency’s GOP majority’s intention to deregulate. The major yet-to-be-resolved issue is where to draw the line.
Mr. Ferree said the formula, which is still in the drafting stage, represented an effort to make the FCC rules “more market-sensitive.”
Among the advantages of a formula, he said, is that it could be crafted to account for market size.
As an example, he said it could be drawn to clear the way for barring cross-ownership of TV stations and daily newspapers in smaller markets while permitting the combinations in larger ones.
“It’s a way to measure diversity,” Mr. Ferree said during a break in the action at agency field hearings in Richmond, Va., on ownership rules.
Mr. Ferree also said that at least in theory the FCC would prefer to include most of the media outlets in a market in the formula. But yet to be resolved, he said, is whether to include every weekly newspaper and classified ad shopper.
Also on the media ownership front last week:
Many of the official witnesses at the agency’s field hearings in Richmond turned out to be the same sort of industry and activist group lobbyists who regularly show up for similar proceedings inside Washington’s Beltway. But dozens of ordinary citizens also showed.
To say the least, it was a colorful crowd, with some protesters wearing blue lab coats and cardboard TV set masks, holding up signs to signify when they agreed or disagreed with a comment from a witness.
“Communications is our Human Right,” read one of the posters. Virtually all who spoke out during the brief open-mike sessions seemed to think deregulation was a bad idea.
Angry Complaints
One complained that there was little discussion on mainstream media outlets about the socialist views he favored. Another charged that consolidation was simply affording media corporations an opportunity to save money, letting them put “a little sawdust in the hamburger” for the public.
Still another complained that the morals projected in television programming provide such a bad role model for children that she was afraid to let her 2-year-old child watch.
To a chorus of boos, a Philadelphian who identified himself as the editor of “Insubordination” magazine, used his open mike to accuse Chairman Powell’s father-Secretary of State Colin Powell-of being a “war criminal.” Chairman Powell beat a hasty retreat when the hearings were officially adjourned in the late afternoon.
But Democratic FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, a foe of deregulation who received copious praise in open-mike sessions for spurring the hearings, told reporters he was planning several more.
At hearings on Capitol Hill, Chairman Powell told lawmakers that he’s still planning an agency vote on what to do about the regulations by the end of May. He warned that the law requires the FCC to presume its ownership rules are no longer necessary.
Also at the congressional hearings, Mr. Powell and GOP Commissioner Kevin Martin made clear that a rule barring broadcasters from buying daily newspapers in their markets is particularly vulnerable.