Diverse. Free. Equal. Pick two

Clay Shirky has an interesting 10,000 foot view of the FCC controversy. Thought provoking, as always.

I have my own take on the media concentration rules, namely that they’re concerning the wrong questions entirely. The most contentious issue the FCC was facing was the ownership cap – whereby a single company was prohibited from owning greater than X% of the local TV stations in the country. Think about that for a second. Done? OK, when was the last time you watched a local TV station? Besides the 11 o’clock news, can you remember the last locally-produced show you watched?

The fact is that local broadcasters are dinosaurs kept alive by government give-aways and which *impede* the diversity of voices in media rather than enhance it.

Here’s the real deal. 80% of US households now have cable or satellite, making the “broadcast” aspect of local broadcasts valuable to only a small minority of viewers; typically rural and poor. The reason the local stations can still survive when they don’t control their own distribution is something called the “must carry” rule. Basically it requires cable TV providers to carry all the local stations in their area, and pay them for the right to their signals. So the FCC gives the local stations the right to broadcast locally without any real regard for the quality or diversity of their viewpoints, then gives them free distribution through cable and finally adds subsidies. It should be no surprise that given this hugely uncompetitive environment the local stations are hardly breaking new ground in programming. In fact, they’re doing exactly what you would expect a member of a subsidized regulated oligopoly to do — they are competing within a very narrow range of options while doing everything they can to stop any restructuring of the industry. Channel 7 ActionNews at 6 or Channel 4 ActionNews at 6:30? Long live diversity.

Meanwhile, say you want to start a new cable station. Maybe one which would actually increase the diversity of viewpoints in media. Well, how do plan on distributing your channel? Cable companies aren’t exactly lacking in new channels to give to consumers, and don’t forget that 3 to 7 channels are taken up by the must carry local broadcasters. Well, instead of subsidies you can expect to pay the cable companies to get onto their systems. And if the cable companies are owned by a media conglomerate hostile to your media conglomerate you can expect a showdown like the ones seen between TimeWarner and Fox News a couple of years ago, or between Cablevision and Yes more recently.

What it all boils down to is a total misreading by the FCC of the key issues facing media regulation. The perspective needs to be on power of distribution not on ownership. The Internet proves this — when people can go to whatever web address they choose, the result is a free and diverse exchange of viewpoints. If the FCC was serious about creating a diversity of voices they would phase out must carry but increase the regulation around the distribution relationships between cable and satellite companies and whatever stations they choose to carry.