Remember the days when our television choices were limited to three major networks, public television and maybe some UHF stations?
When ABC, NBC and CBS dictated what appeared on television and we turned to Walter Cronkite or Huntley-Brinkley as our daily gatekeepers of television news?
Today, our news and programming choices are vast and varied, allowing us to turn to the networks or diverse cable outlets that provide news programming, recipes or golf tips. Radio has exploded and become specialized in major media markets and the Internet allows each of us to be a distributor and consumer of news and information.
While the media landscape has changed dramatically, government regulations concerning ownership of media outlets are remnants of a bygone era, but today that may change.
The Federal Communications Commission is scheduled to vote on a proposal that would ease restrictions on media companies owning other outlets — newspapers, television and radio stations — in the same major market and allow single media companies to own TV stations that reach more than 35 percent of the U.S. audience.
The deregulation plan is expected to pass with the support of three Republicans on the commission while two Democrat commissioners oppose relaxing ownership limits.
Critics, even some social conservatives who decry government regulation against their causes, say media ownership restrictions are necessary to prevent programming decisions from being concentrated in the hands of a few who, they contend, would limit diverse viewpoints.
But FCC Chairman Michael Powell, who supports the proposal, told Reuters that “as long as this country is diverse … you’re going to have a very difficult time making money being a one-note station.”
He’s right. Fears that the new media ownership rules would choke off diversity are unfounded and ignore today’s realities of the information marketplace where media consumers have a plethora of media choices and, with the intense focus on ratings, become arbiters of media programming.
It makes good business sense to offer more diversity to the American media consumer, not less.
“These rules have become historic anachronisms that ignore new market conditions and the intense competition for our eyes and ears,” wrote Adam Thierer and Clyde Wayne Crews, Jr., telecommunications and technology experts at The Cato Institute. “Even as the underlying business structures and relationships in this industry continue to change, the one undeniable reality of our modern media marketplace is that information and entertainment are commodities that cannot be monopolized.”
While critics decry the possible “Wal-Martization” of media — in which major companies purchase smaller ones — it’s an economic reality that larger businesses often have the capital and resources to launch competitive enterprises that increase consumer choices. A few years ago, CNN was the only outlet for 24-hour cable news. Now, Fox News Channel and MSNBC are competing in that venue and offering news alternatives for consumers.
The FCC’s ownership rules are simply no longer necessary. The consumer has more power over today’s media, unlike the days when our choices were limited to what the Big Three networks chose to feed us, and today the consumer demands options.
Diversity in programming has proved to be commercially successful. The free market will not allow that to be turned off.