Easing government rules to allow more media consolidation would push out niche radio programming such as classical, jazz and gospel music while doing little to improve local TV coverage, new studies say.
Reports released Monday by two public interest groups, the Benton Foundation and the Social Science Research Council, challenged the Federal Communications Commission’s argument that media consolidation would improve local coverage and programming due to synergy effects.
The FCC is reviewing the issue following a failed 2003 attempt to loosen media ownership restrictions.
“These studies make clear that there is no support for the contention that media consolidation correlates with better, more local or more diverse media content,” said Gloria Tristani, a former FCC commissioner and president of the Benton Foundation.
The FCC in June reopened the hotly disputed issue of ownership limits, including the number of radio and television stations that one owner can have and restrictions on cross-ownership between newspapers and broadcasters.
Former FCC Chairman Michael Powell pushed through loosened rules in 2003, but a federal appeals court threw them out on grounds that the FCC compiled an insufficient record to justify them.
The 2003 changes would have let one corporation own – in a single community – up to three TV stations, eight radio stations, the cable system, the only daily newspaper and the biggest Internet provider, according to Democratic commissioners who opposed the plan.
According to the studies released Monday:
— A radio company that owns more stations in a local market was less likely to offer niche formats such as easy listening, bluegrass, tejano and classical music, despite the company’s greater opportunities, given its size, to do so.
— Cross-owned TV stations were more likely to offer local news, in part because larger news stations were usually the ones targeted for acquisition by newspapers. But when factoring out market size, the cross-owned ones did not provide more news than other stations in the local news business.
— Media ownership opportunities for women and minority groups remained limited. Of the 12,844 radio and television stations that filed reports with the FCC in 2005, women own 3.4 percent and minorities own 3.6 percent.
Many of the broadcast television networks and large media companies including the Tribune Co., Gannett Co. and the New York Times Co. have supported loosened rules, saying current restrictions are outmoded in a digital age in which consumers also have the Internet and cable TV to choose from.
The FCC has scheduled several hearings and allowed 120 days for public comment, which expires Monday. Current FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has supported eliminating the three-decade-old flat ban on cross-ownership.
The fate of media ownership proposals could be determined in part by the November congressional elections.
A switch to Democratic control in the House would likely hamper any attempts to let media conglomerates own more TV stations. In the Senate, Democrats such as John Kerry of Massachusetts and Barack Obama of Illinois – two possible 2008 presidential contenders – have called on the agency to consider diversity when reviewing ownership rules.
The FCC and its staff declined to predict how long the review process will take. The agency held its first public hearing in Los Angeles earlier this month.