Dereg struggle seen assisting public TV

By Steve Behrens

There’s hope for public broadcasting in the upwelling of citizen opposition to FCC deregulation of commercial TV, broadcast historian Robert McChesney said in a keynote address at the PBS Annual Meeting June 7.

“It’s this movement of an aroused and engaged citizenry that really is the future that will genuinely expand and enhance public-service media in the United States,” McChesney asserted.

Dereg became a matter of public debate as the FCC adopted new rules June 2, loosening limits on station ownership. A single company can now own stations reaching up to 45 percent of the country’s population, up from 35 percent (and the real reach permitted is greater, since the FCC by policy counts only half of UHF viewers).

The changes are expected to excite a frenzy of station purchases by media giants. One company can now own two or three commercial TV stations in a market, depending on the number of stations there. In larger markets, it can also own a daily newspaper or multiple radio stations. Public as well as commercial stations will be counted in figuring the market’s total.

PBS President Pat Mitchell, who invited McChesney to speak at the Miami Beach convention, said public broadcasters have a stake in dereg issues.

“Many people said . . . that this wasn’t a public broadcasting issue — that we had, as it were, no dog in the fight,” she told the PBS Board June 6. “Not true. We had the biggest dog of all in the fight — the public.”

Pubcasters in particular also may fear further dereg will permit mergers involving cable and satellite operators, which could restrict delivery of pubcasting channels to the public, Mitchell warned.

“It is possible that there will be one owner in charge of satellite, one or two owners controlling cable, and since we do not have digital must-carry [rules guaranteeing carriage of public TV channels] . . . we have . . . the issue of these very powerful gatekeepers,” Mitchell said.

Others have contended that public broadcasting will be strengthened by drawing a sharper line between its public-service motivations and the intensifying profit drive of commercial stations. In the past, Rep. Billy Tauzin, who oversees the FCC as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has suggested that both be purified — with less commercialism in pubcasting and fewer public-interest expectations of commercial stations. Reformers including Henry Geller back a historic tradeoff: Commercial broadcasters should be allowed to buy their way out of regulation by helping support pubcasting.

McChesney, author of Rich Media, Poor Democracy and a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, opposed that view. Heightening the contrast between commercial and public broadcasting would help public TV only in the short term, he said. Ultimately, it would be “the public broadcasting of fools.”

“In the long term,” McChesney explained, “it’s absolutely mandatory for public broadcasting that it be connected to an enrichment of the entire media culture. We cannot exist as a public service island in a sea of conglomeration and commercialism.” In the past, both in the United States and abroad, pubcasting’s quality has risen and fallen in tandem with commercial broadcasting’s, he said.

McChesney sees a developing public consensus about broadcasting’s excessive consolidation and shortcomings. What unites Americans, he said half-jokingly, is that they all believe their city’s local TV news is the worst in the country.

He disputed the view that it’s not the American way for the government to take direct action to support media quality. The nation’s founders did it, McChesney argued. They didn’t think freedom of the press could be achieved solely by putting the presses in the hands of private business. Jefferson, Madison and other early leaders supported high postal subsidies of newspapers in recognition of their importance to democracy. The subsidies helped give meaning to freedom of the press and encouraged literacy, McChesney said.

The politicians’ objective then was to aid democracy. Today, McChesney said, the highest objective of FCC Chairman Michael Powell is the economic efficiency of media companies.

Picturing the FCC debates as a fight between regulation and the free market is propaganda, he said.

“The question isn’t regulation versus deregulation,” McChesney explained, “it’s regulation that serves some sort of publicly determined values versus regulation strictly to serve private commercial interests.” Anyone who tried to trespass on one of Clear Channel’s frequencies would quickly feel the power of government regulation, he said.

McChesney said it would be dangerous for public broadcasting to take on commercial broadcasters as opponents, but that it helped bring dereg to public attention by covering the policy debates, as few commercial media did. As McChesney and Mitchell pointed out, pubcasters have been among the few who have covered the dereg issue.

“In that regard, we served the public from day one,” Mitchell said. “We kept telling them why it was their issue and why it was important.”

LATER COMMENTARY

Norris Dickard of the Benton Foundation listens closely as the FCC chairman has an epiphany.

OUTSIDE LINK

McChensey, Pat Mitchell and others will speak at the National Conference on Media Reform, Nov. 7-9 in Madison, Wis.

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