The Message

Brave New World

On June 2, when the Federal Communications Commission voted by a slender majority to slacken many of its broadcast ownership rules, most protesters who'd opposed such a move felt disheartened. Nonetheless, Colorado Springs's Criz Stoddard -- whose left-leaning Springs Action Alliance was one of countless grassroots organizations nationwide to demonstrate in advance against the FCC's decision -- sees grounds for optimism. "We found out that this is a binding theme," she says. "I mean, we're against it, and so is the NRA."

Granted, Stoddard's reasons for resisting further media consolidation could hardly be more different from those of the National Rifle Association. She doesn't want to boost conservatively inclined information purveyors such as the Fox News Channel, whereas Charlton Heston and company are worried that what it referred to in a recent mailing as "gun-hating media giants like AOL Time Warner, Viacom/CBS and Disney/ ABC" will whip up a weapon-banning fervor among the populace if given the opportunity. The NRA urged members to send the FCC postcards decrying this prospect, joining plenty of other collectives with disparate views, and individuals of every description responded. By one count, over 700,000 folks shared their displeasure -- and while they didn't win this time around, people like Stoddard believe there may be a different outcome in round two. "There's still a chance these changes could be rolled back," she says.

FCC commissioners led by Michael Powell, son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, didn't overhaul every standard. For instance, radio-station ownership levels remain the same, and the ban against a single firm owning more than one of the big four TV networks wasn't altered. Now, though, local TV stations owned by a single company can cumulatively reach 45 percent of American viewers, rather than 35 percent, the previous threshold, thereby potentially giving networks more clout over more outlets. Businesses can also buy multiple TV stations in the same market, with the number determined by the area's size; in general, a single owner can hold two signals in markets with at least five stations, and three in communities with eighteen or more. (TVRadioWorld. com lists fifteen analog TV stations in the Denver/Boulder area, plus numerous digital and low-power signals.) And for markets with a minimum of nine TV stations, like ours, the prohibition against one entity owning a newspaper and one or more broadcast stations or radio-television combinations is out the window entirely. Goodbye.

That's the way Dean Singleton likes it. The head of MediaNews Group, which owns the Denver Post and over a hundred other print and broadcast properties across the country, Singleton has, by his own account, been working since 1993 to remove FCC limits that prevented a single company from owning a newspaper along with a television or radio station in the same community -- a tenet known as newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership. Indeed, Singleton's advocacy in this area has made him a target for criticism from ostensible peers like the Seattle Times Company's Frank Blethen, who champions local ownership of media properties. When testifying before a Commerce Committee hearing in May, Blethen was asked by New Hampshire Senator John Sununu if he viewed Singleton, who also addressed the panel, as a threat to democracy. Blethen's simple answer: "Yes."

Be that as it may, newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership is officially a reality, and Singleton sees it as a "win-win" for everyone. "When you break it down by facts, it not only looks reasonable, but you have to wonder why it took so long," he says. "The opponents yell and scream about what's wrong with this, but they can't tell you what it is. They haven't shown one piece of hard evidence."

In his Commerce Committee testimony, which was largely reproduced in a May 25 op-ed essay for the Denver Post, Singleton made an intriguing case for how the crushing of cross-ownership barriers would help consumers in small communities. "In Pittsfield, Massachusetts, I own a newspaper that covers the western quadrant of Massachusetts," he stated. "There is no television station there and never has been. If this rule is changed, we could put a station on the air that provided local TV news for the first time ever."

Of course, such a project would present Pittsfield residents with something of a quandary, because the novelty of local television-news coverage would also give MediaNews unprecedented power to influence the community via the media. In Singleton's view, the majority of Pittsfielders would regard this tradeoff as eminently acceptable, and he's probably right. However, his line of reasoning seems less straightforward when applied to Eureka, California, which has four TV stations with relatively few hands on deck; Singleton revealed that the news staff at the strongest of these tops out at eleven. He contends that by combining radio, TV and newspaper service, the pool of news gatherers available to these entities would instantly be much larger, thereby providing better service. Others might counter that the main results, beyond cost savings due to economies of scale, would be greater duplication of stories from medium to medium and, probably, a less competitive environment overall.

Who's right? We may not find out as quickly as many thought even when it comes to MediaNews. The company already owns KTVA-TV in Anchorage, Alaska, which was picked up, according to the MediaNews Web site, "in anticipation of changes in the regulations governing ownership of newspapers, radio and television." Just as important, Singleton said earlier this year ("Green-Light Specials," January 23) that MediaNews was "preparing to purchase both radio and television. In some cases, we already have agreements to do so, subject to the change in the rule." Last week, Singleton told the trade magazine Editor & Publisher that he's likely to exercise an option to buy KTVS-TV in Fairbanks, Alaska.

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