FCC: The Fix Was In

Jun 9, 2003  •  Post A Comment

The edict last week that loosened regulations on TV station ownership wasn’t really made in a Federal Communications Commission meeting room in Washington. That was just a show to put the official stamp on a decision made in a back room many months before. For that matter, it can really be traced back to the winter of 2000, when the presidential election was determined by a slim margin in the contested Florida primary.
What the ownership decision is about is politics. As far as I am concerned, the fix was in long before the votes were cast. Powerful corporations and big political contributors won this battle months ago, and everything since has been staged to make it appear the rules were being followed.
That illusion became harder to maintain as the vote neared. That is why there was such a big rush to get to a vote. It wasn’t because the sky was falling for broadcasters and only quick action would save the day, as Michael Powell, the FCC chairman, seemed to suggest. In fact, only days before the vote the very same “endangered” entertainment giants were reaping the biggest harvest of upfront ad sales of all time. Ironically, they were getting higher rates because they had lower ratings, fragmented by competition.
The rush to judgment was because the longer it took, the more time there would be for opposition to muster arguments, resources and political power. That is why, as tons of telegrams, e-mail, interest-group protests and political displeasure rolled in, the FCC just kept rolling along. That is why a decision of significant magnitude was made without proper public hearings, without adequate time for outside comment, without taking into account all points of view.
There was only one point of view that mattered to the FCC, and it was along party lines all the way.
If this was not a politically motivated decision, then where was the discussion about who owns the airwaves and the need for public interest as a consideration? Where was a counter-balance to the `profit comes first’ point of view. Who was there to protect the interests of minorities, the disadvantaged, even the advantaged who didn’t agree, whether it was Barry Diller or the National Rifle Association?
There certainly is a price for continuing a trend begun in the 1980s by the Reagan administration to strip away the rules that regulated broadcasting. That price includes a loss of localism and community involvement, an end to locally produced programming and the elimination of idiosyncratic points of view that may not jibe with the interests of mega-corporations. It brushes aside all the things that made democracy so messy, but so important for ensuring fairness for all.
Business doesn’t like controversy. It costs time, management resources and money. It can lead to boycotts and lost ad dollars and bring about unwanted political ramifications. The trade-off results in a kind of blandness and sameness, much like that which engulfs many aspects of America. There was a time when every community had lots of local businesses, including one-of-a-kind restaurants. Some were good; others were horrible. But they provided a local or regional identity. Increasingly, those local outlets have been replaced by big box stores and fast food franchises that look the same whether in Omaha, Neb., or Oshkosh, Wis.
the bottom line rules
Increasingly, the same shows, same reruns, even the same news plays everywhere. This encourages uniformity in how we dress, play and work. The idea that craftsmanship, pride of ownership, local color and regional differences are important fades; and a society run by remote control from distant corporate headquarters where the bottom line rules is left in its place. There is nothing wrong with businesses or making a profit, as long as there is a counter-balance that protects society and the individual. That is what is being threatened here.
Maybe we will look back on 2003 as a watershed year for TV. We may recall it as the year broadcast TV was revived by the FCC’s forthright actions, although I doubt it. On the other end of the spectrum, we may recall it as year that the concept of TV as nothing more than a business was made legitimate and the last vestiges of TV operating in the public interest evaporated.
After all, why worry about serving the public interest when the fix is already in.