Progressives’ Anti-Merger Mania

The proposed merger between the cable systems of Charter Communications, Time Warner Cable, and Bright House Networks has brought out the usual poseurs in opposition.  I speak, of course, of such as Common Cause, Consumers Union, and Public Knowledge (all of which are wrong in their usual and tiresome way, but not certifiable), and their more extreme kin, Media Alliance and Free Press.

As it happens, there exists a bridge between these armies of progressivism in the person of former FCC commissioner Michael Copps.  Since leaving the FCC, Copps has flocked to the aid of those organizations he favored when he was a commissioner.  So it is that the gentleman is now on the board of Free Press and a “special adviser” to Common Cause.

Which, of course, is why it’s important to know the kinds of things he’s saying about the merger.  Writing in Common Dreams (“Breaking News and Views for the Progressive Community”), Copps relieves himself of opinions like these:

This merger would create a new Comcast – a national cable giant with the ability and the incentive to thwart competition, diversity, and consumer choice….  >> Read More

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.  The full version of this article appeared in The Hill on Feb. 9, 2016.

Michael Copps’ Excellent Adventure

Even in a town filled to the gunwales with sagacious and selfless public servants (wink, wink), FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, now in his tenth and final year as such, stands out from the crowd.  Evidence of his colorful take on policy issues has been on display right from the beginning.

In 2001, for instance, in just his first months on the job, Copps issued statements condemning allegedly indecent radio comments by Howard Stern (September); the TV broadcast of a Victoria’s Secret program (November); and the airing of liquor advertising (December).

When he wasn’t condemning indecent language, scantily clad women, or Demon Rum, Copps was laying the groundwork for what would become his signature spiel: a four-part jeremiad that excoriates the current state of journalism (not enough “localism” or investigative reporting); blames this state of affairs on media consolidation; recommends more spending on public broadcasting; and decries what he sees as insufficient “public interest” obligations on the licensed media (and perhaps the unlicensed media as well).

Copps is not alone in holding such views, but there’s something about the way he presents them – especially now when the political, legal, and economic winds are blowing in a very different direction – that’s borderline amusing.  Where once his fire and brimstone suggested a kind of Elmer Gantry, it now seems rather like Elmer Fudd. (“I hate wabbits!”)

Who could forget, just five months before the 2008 presidential election, the speech that Copps gave to the so-called National Conference on Media Reform?  Organized annually by those wonderful “progressives” at Free Press, Copps never misses one of these things; they are, he says, his favorite place to be.

Anyhow, in June of 2008, the commissioner was practically giddy at the prospect of working that old time religion on the nation’s communications policies:

On a night like tonight almost anything seems possible, doesn’t it?  To tell you the truth, I feel like that a lot these days.  I know we can get this done.  We can climb into the bright uplands of real democracy.  Because as we change media, we change everything.  We empower 300 million Americans to deal with all those issues that Big Media has dumbed-down or just plain ignored at terrible cost to our democracy.  There is no real democracy without media democracy.

Never mind the risible imagery of the Free Press crowd, backpacks and all, climbing those “bright uplands,” or the pristine gimcrackery in the real democracy/media democracy linkage – what’s notable is the contrast between those remarks and a speech Copps gave just a week ago.

Speaking again to the National Conference on Media Reform (who else?), Copps let it all hang out:

I’m here because I’m more worried than ever about the state of America’s media and what it’s doing to our country….  For the consolidated owners of radio and TV, the license to broadcast became a license to despoil….

What we’re dealing with here is a bad case of Big Media substance abuse – and they just can’t break the habit.  These folks have no intention, even as the economy improves, of reopening shuttered newsrooms or rehiring laid-off reporters.  They might even fire more, just to prove to Wall Street that the bottom line still rules….

You and I knew all along that the realization of our dreams waited on a new era of reform in Washington.  Then the new era came and we all just knew that media reform was right around the corner.  Twenty-seven months later we are still waiting.  Waiting for even a down payment on media reform, like an honest-to-goodness broadcast license renewal process to replace the utterly ridiculous, no-questions-asked regime now in place.  Or some public interest guidelines to encourage broadcast news and diversity and localism.

Really, it’s almost enough to make a grown man cry.  All those uplands unclimbed!  And Big Media moguls, firing people left and right, just to prove something to Wall Street.  Hearing such stuff, you know that Copps earnestly believes he’s put his finger on the problem.  After all, what else could it be?

Still, there’s something a little otherworldly about the gentleman’s lament, as though he’s been just a bystander looking in.  For the past 10 years Michael Copps has been one of five commissioners at the FCC, even chairman for a while, and since 2009 he has been a member of the majority there.

So if now, as he’s on his way out the door, Copps feels that the FCC has foozled its play, perhaps he should consider pointing one of those accusatory fingers at himself.  Maybe the problem all along hasn’t been consolidation or avarice, maybe it’s been that what ails the media, and the way forward, are more complex than to be availing of the kind of nostrums Copps and Free Press have been peddling.

Maybe the problem is that the Internet has upset the business model of almost all of the “old media,” denying them, most importantly, the kind of ad revenue that has been their lifeblood.  Seen from this perspective, exhortations to deny the efficiencies of consolidation, or to require more stringent “public interest” obligations, or to recommend greater funding of public broadcasting are not just irrelevant, they’re appalling.

                                       
The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

Dueling Philosophies on Minority Ownership

What happens when you invite the FCC’s two veteran commissioners to speak about the media at a Rainbow PUSH Coalition symposium?  When one of the commissioners is Michael Copps, and the other is Robert McDowell, you get two very different views of where things stand and how they could be improved, as we saw on Nov. 20.

Copps, a Democrat, is a long-time foe of large media companies.  So he uses phrases like “excessive media consolidation,” “big media run awry,” “tsunami of consolidation,” and the punchline: “Minorities have suffered greatly because of consolidation.”  

One of his proposals to “put some justice back into our ownership policies” would involve a “public interest licensing system for broadcasters.”  Copps would like the Commission to “go back to having some guidelines to make sure stations are consulting with their audiences on what kinds of programming people would like.”  But wait, I think we already have such a system.  It’s called “ratings.”

Copps also favors something called a “full file review,” which would have the Commission award certain broadcast licenses by considering an applicant’s “experiences in overcoming disadvantages,” including race and gender discrimination.  (This sounds like a lawsuit waiting to be filed, but that’s another story.)  In other words, Copps views the FCC as the referee in a fight between “big media” and the little guy, where the solution is a tight rein on ownership regulations.
    
Robert McDowell sees things differently.  For minorities to get ahead in broadcasting and other media, Republican McDowell is quite clear about what is needed: access to capital.  “An important priority for me in my three-and-a-half years on the Commission has been to help create a competitive environment that allows minority entrepreneurs and other new entrants a real opportunity to build viable communications businesses,” he told the Rainbow PUSH group.
    
McDowell noted that he enthusiastically supported the Commission’s 2007 Diversity Order, which contained nine measures to help small entrepreneurs acquire capital or use their financial resources more efficiently.  He has also called for a tax certificate program to help disadvantaged businesses.  
    
At the same time, McDowell is keenly aware of the unintended and hurtful consequences of regulations (of the sort favored by Copps) aimed at helping small, local media owners  – like a “localism” proposal to reinstate a 20-year-old rule requiring stations to be manned throughout their broadcast day (technology notwithstanding), or onerous “enhanced disclosure” requirements so complex that they could require the hiring of additional employees.   
    
In short: On the question of disadvantaged minorities, Copps sees the culprit as large media companies.  From his perspective, the FCC must be a strict regulator of media ownership.  McDowell sees the culprit as the lack of access to capital.  He would envision the FCC as a facilitator, creating policies to generate financial opportunities for entrepreneurs.
    
Whose view is more accurate and whose solution is more likely to succeed?  On both counts, my money is on McDowell.   

Commissioner Michael Copps and Media Ownership

Owing to his earnest and mild-mannered (if intellectually scruffy) ways, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps has rarely inspired anger.  No matter how wrong-headed his views – and he’s been wrong about virtually everything for the whole of his time as a Commissioner – he’s been accorded that kind of tolerance that people bestow on those seen to be sincere and to mean well.

That’s about to change.  In the midst of the worst economy – and potentially fatal problems for that part of the economy occupied by American newspapers and broadcasters – Copps is saying and doing things that infuriate.

The most recent, and onerous, examples occurred just yesterday and today when, according to stories in Broadcasting & Cable, Copps demonstrated, yet again, how insulated he is from the world of fact and logic.

Presiding (alone) over an FCC workshop convened to hear the views of academics on the subject of media ownership on Monday, “Copps warned against putting too much stock in the doom and gloom scenarios about the health of TV and newspapers, suggesting that trying to ‘save’ the media should not translate to a lighter re-regulatory hand.”

Then today, at yet another workshop, Copps expressed the opinion (as reported by B&C) that “if the FCC can’t rejuvenate shuttered newsrooms, put the brakes on ‘mind-numbing "monoprogramming"’ and otherwise turn the tide … of consolidation, then ‘maybe those who want the spectrum back have the better of the argument after all.’”

And so there you have it.  The parlous state of the TV and newspaper industries, according to Michael Copps, is nothing to be worried about.  It’s just a rumor.  No need to lighten the regulatory load.  In fact, if broadcasters don’t start programming the way Copps would like, maybe we’ll just take their spectrum away from them.

The series of workshops in question have one more day to run. Plenty of time, in other words, for Copps to give us the benefit of even more of this stuff.

Obama and the Media, Part I

Writing in Broadcasting & Cable as chairman of the American Business Leadership Institute, the gifted Adonis Hoffman*       suggests that business has nothing to fear from an Obama Administration. 

Some early tests of Hoffman’s thesis will come in that corner of the nation’s economy that we care about most — the media and communications sector.  Three distinct issues come immediately to mind: consolidation, content regulation, and net neutrality.

Unless you’ve been in a coma, or trapped inside Free Press (which is pretty much the same thing), you’re aware of the pit into which much of the print and broadcast media are falling.  You also know that the proximate cause of their problems is the Internet, and the damage it has done to publishers’ and broadcasters’ business plans.

For all of this, you’re also aware of one other thing: that however much professional journalists and entertainers may disappoint, they are an essential part of any well-functioning democracy.

So given all of this, why would anyone want to deny broadcasters and publishers such business opportunities as may obtain these days through consolidation?  It’s not, after all, as though we’re talking about marrying companies that are triumphant and unstoppable.  Just the opposite.  In many smaller communities especially, we‘re talking about companies that are on the cusp of oblivion.  And while it’s hard to make the case that inter- or intra-industry consolidation comprises a solution to the crisis facing broadcasters and publishers, neither is it easy to make the argument that it wouldn’t help on the margins.

In a recent interview, Kevin Martin, whose chairmanship of the FCC has been indelibly marked by his passion for content controls, is said to have made “no apologies for his indecency enforcement, saying it was for the sake of children.  He adds that food marketing and media violence are two other places he thinks the government may need to step in….”

And so much for anything and everything to do with personal responsibility, the First Amendment, and the quaint idea that the people who own businesses are in the best position to know how to run them.

Depending on how Obama and his appointees come down on this issue, future programming decisions may well be made not by people whose primary interest is in creativity or profits, but in politics — thereby opening the door to every special interest and single-issue fanatic with designs on TV, and through it, on you.

(Next in "Obama and the Media, Part II": Net neutrality.)
*Adonis Hoffman is a member of The Media Institute’s First Amendment Advisory Council.

Continue reading “Obama and the Media, Part I”

The Real Problem With Radio

Washington radio icon Chris Core was given the boot in February after 33 years behind the microphone at WMAL-AM in the Nation’s Capital.  He was part of a cost-cutting move by the station’s owners, who also fired the entire on-air staff of sister station WJZW-FM.

Marc Fisher, a Washington Post reporter who had written “The Listener” radio column since 1995, wrote his final column and signed off June 1, as he lamented the passing of “the kind of eccentric, iconoclastic voices that made radio so alluring from the 1950s into the ’80s.”  Now, Fisher says, the talent is “mostly anonymous and amateur.”  The implication: Radio in the Washington, D.C., market isn’t worth writing about anymore.

Critics of “media concentration” will be quick to seize on the tales of Core and Fisher to “prove” that big is bad.  They will tell us that the multiple-station ownership practiced by big companies like Clear Channel and Citadel (which now owns WMAL) is the root cause of all that is wrong with radio today, from the loss of “localism” to the homogenization of programming.

Unfortunately, these critics will be exactly wrong.  Media concentration is not the cause of radio’s problems – it is an effect of something else entirely: the fragmentation of audiences that has come about as exploding technology has given the public a whole new panoply of delivery platforms.

Listeners (and especially young listeners) are getting their audio fix via satellite radio, Internet radio, cell phones, and PDAs, and can create their own mix on iPods and MP3 players.  Don’t forget free HD radio and, soon, free Internet radio in cars.  The always-philosophical Core recognizes that “radio stations have to either evolve from their traditional ways or wither.” 

Kenneth J. Goldstein, president of Communications Management Inc., presciently observes that fragmentation not only is the cause of consolidation (as station owners try to re-aggregate audiences), but also of cost pressures, less localism, content sharing, and stretching the boundaries of taste. 

Regrettably, policymakers are being bombarded with the big-is-bad “concentration myth” by critics of multiple ownership.  However, until policymakers understand the issue correctly (i.e., realize that media consolidation is merely one effect of technology-driven fragmentation), the debate is fated to be an uninformed waste of time.  And any policy “solutions” that spring from such a spurious debate are almost sure to be catastrophic.

Continue reading “The Real Problem With Radio”

Cross Ownership: That ’70s Show in the Senate

There they go again. No, not the FCC.  This time it’s the U.S. Senate, still worried after all these years that the same company might own a newspaper and a TV station in the same market.  The Senate recently passed Senate Joint Resolution 28, which cancels a very modest attempt by the FCC to relax the newspaper-broadcast cross ownership rule in the nation’s top 20 media markets.

In effect, the Senate is saying that ownership of newspapers and TV stations should be restricted just as it was in 1975 when the rule was adopted – when viewers in big cities were lucky to get six over-the-air channels, and “cable” was still the “community antenna” in rural areas.

The effort to relax or even eliminate the cross ownership ban has gone on for years, even as the FCC was repealing virtually all of its other ’70s-era ownership restrictions.  The FCC’s action on Dec. 18 wasn’t much, but it was still too much for a Senate that’s apparently afraid to move out of the 1970s.

John F. Sturm, president and CEO of the Newspaper Association of America, summed it up when he said: “It is incomprehensible that Congress would shackle local newspapers – and only newspapers – with a ban that fits the eight-track era, but not the iPod world we live in.”

There is no logical reason for the Senate to act this way.  Could the reason be political?  Congress and the FCC are routinely barraged with mass e-mails orchestrated by various interest groups.  The magnitude of these mailings can appear far greater to policymakers than it really is.  Think of the man behind the curtain in "The Wizard of Oz."

A popular policy target of such groups has been “media consolidation,” always portrayed as a looming evil.  But in today’s economic environment, multiple ownership of media outlets has become an economic necessity – a matter of survival. 

Critics fear that “consolidation” will result in fewer voices and viewpoints reaching the public.  The real danger, however, is that media voices will be lost as struggling newspapers and broadcast outlets are forced out of business, suffocated by antiquated rules that prevent them from taking advantage of the economies of scale that come with multiple ownership.

It will be ironic indeed if the anti-consolidation forces triumph, leaving us with less rather than more media diversity.  The politically timid Senate is playing right into the critics’ hands.  It’s time for our solons to pitch their eight-tracks and reach for an iPod.